Wednesday, November 22, 2017

NOW, VOYAGER (Warner Bros. 1942) Warner Home Video

In 1925, brought on by the inconsolable loss of her daughter, noted novelist, Olive Higgins Prouty suffered a complete emotional breakdown. Retreating to a sanitarium for convalescence, and encouraged by her psychiatrist to redouble her efforts to write – the catharsis of which would produce two enduring masterworks – Conflict (1927) and Now, Voyager (1941); Prouty emerged from her grief as one of the most prolific and successful authors of her generation. While her previous effort, 1923’s Stella Dallas, had been a runaway best seller, Now, Voyager – although successful in its own right – did not live up to her publisher’s expectations; Warner Bros. agreeing to pay the authoress $50,000 for the rights to produce it, but only if the novel sold more than 50,000 copies by May, 1941. It did not and the figure eventually settled upon was closer to $40,000. While Prouty derived inspiration from real life for the trials and tribulations of her fictional heroine, Charlotte Vale, she all but lifted the novel’s title from a Walt Whitman’s two-line poem ‘The Untold Want’ which read, “The untold want by life and land ne’er granted, Now voyager, sail forth to seek and find.”
There are moments in Now, Voyager as great as any sonnet composed by Shakespeare or Shelley, as any overture to grand amour conducted under the auspices of Keats or Browning; Bette Davis as one of the unsurpassed grand dames of selfless altruism, superbly accompanied by her worldly – if platonic – paramour, Paul Henreid; the highs, lows and intricate orchestrations of their drama, pathos, simple joys and melancholia, wrapped in the enigma of Freudian psychoanalysis. If it all sounds rather over the top at a glance - it is; splendidly brought to fruition in all the fine trappings an A-list studio like Warner Bros. could lend to the cause during its heyday: Robert M. Haas’ superb art direction, Sol Polito’s glossy and luxuriating B&W cinematography, Orry-Kelly’s exquisite costuming, and Max Steiner’s superior scoring sessions. Now, Voyager raises the bar in so many ways, the finished product all but suggests its destiny as one of the all-time classic weepies. 
And yet, in Hollywood, the prospect of transposing Prouty’s latest ‘hit’ into an even bigger one for the silver screen proved somewhat elusive – at least, at first; what with imminent producer, Hal B. Wallis’ heart set on Ginger Rogers as the Bostonian recluse who emerges, as butterfly from under the stifling cocoon of her overbearing and spiteful mother. Director, Edmund Goulding preferred Irene Dunne – in hindsight, a more likely choice to do the part justice. Of course, neither suited the likes of Bette Davis who, by 1942 had garnered enough clout at Warner Bros. to write her own ticket. Still, it must have sent Davis into a fury to read a squib in Louella Parson’s Herald-Examiner column, touting Dunne as the frontrunner. Mercifully, fate intervened; Goulding becoming suddenly ill and forced to withdraw from the project; replaced by caustic Hungarian genius, Michael Curtiz, who weighed his options between Rogers or Norma Shearer. A formidable force of nature – not unlike Davis – Curtiz usually got his way; just not this time.
Bette Davis campaigned with a tidal wave of rigor and passion that only complete acquiescence to her demands could quell. Curtiz withdrew from the fray rather than face down ‘the fifth Warner brother’ (Davis’ nickname on the backlot); some have suggested, also, because his previous encounters with Davis on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), had so completely soured him on working with the formidable star ever again. His replacement, Irving Rapper, a disciple of Curtiz, was also willing to fall into line with Davis’ edicts and temperament, but elected to cast the rest of the picture without her counsel. To this end, Rapper hired Claude Rains to play the empathetic Dr. Jacquith; also, Gladys Cooper to portray the matriarchal gargoyle of the piece. For Charlotte’s lover, Rapper made an unlikely decision in Paul von Henreid (foreshortened on the marquee to Paul Henreid). The Austrian-born Henreid was fast being shaped by the studio into an intercontinental lover via Charles Boyer; curiously publicized in Warner’s PR as a cross between two of their most popular leading men, George Brent and Leslie Howard, to which the congenial and suave Henreid bore no earthly resemblance. 
It almost didn’t happen. Henreid’s initial test for the part of architect Jerry Durrance was all but ruined by the studio’s hair and makeup department; heavily pancaked, mascaraed, and, with enough pomade to slather a mountain goat.  “He looks ghastly,” Davis shouted at Wallis, “Like a floorwalker in a department store!”  It was perhaps kismet Henreid equally abhorred ‘the Lothario look’ assigned to him, and thus, an instant and lifelong friendship was born between Henreid and Davis. The two would work together again as director and star on 1964’s Dead Ringer.
In a career chocked full of unimpeachable artistic highlights, Now, Voyager (1942) remains the quintessential Bette Davis picture; a weepie par excellence, equally drawing on Prouty’s tear-stained novel as Davis’ towering realization of Charlotte Vale; this uni-browed spinster cum accomplished lady heir to the manor born. Davis is magnificent beyond all expectation in this – the most popular movie role of her entire career and the most profitable picture she would ever make at Warner Bros. What could have so easily devolved into maudlin treacle at a glance, acquires far more subtext, thanks to Casey Robinson; once so astutely described as “the master of the art – or craft – of adaptation.” According the source, Davis, Casey Robinson or Paul Henreid is responsible for the iconic – and unscripted – moment where Henreid’s Jerry lights two cigarettes nestled between his lips, giving one to an emotional Charlotte, who acknowledges the gesture with tears and gratitude of an old maid. 
Decades later, Robinson still clearly resented the implication anyone had a hand in reshaping this material. “…there was never – never – one word changed in any of the scripts I wrote for her – by Miss Davis, by a director, by anybody – and that is a flat statement, a true statement…and final!”  By 1942, Davis had, in fact, profited handsomely from Robinson’s slick prose; her meteoric upswing at the studio in a series of well-chosen projects, casting her as everything from a fiery southern belle to a haughty blue-blood socialite stricken by crippling blindness and death.
Initially, Jack Warner clashed with Davis over her choice of roles. At the outset, Jack saw Davis as a platinum dolly – his answer to MGM’s Jean Harlow. Davis, alas, had come to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a serious actress. She was mortified to play the slinky sex bomb in pictures like 1933’s Ex-Lady; flush with embarrassment when overhearing director, Edmund Goulding mutter to a grip, “What do you think of these broads who think they can get anywhere by showing their legs and their chests?” Indeed, Davis’ virtues were not to be found in her physical assets, except ostensibly in those hard-boiled orbs that bulged, flashed and radiated volumes of kilowatt rage, temptation, sadness and that elusive spark of movie-land originality in tandem.  Neither Warner nor Davis was willing to budge in the way they saw her career, and thus the line was drawn in the proverbial sand, culminating with an inevitable rift in 1936 when Davis attempted to wrangle herself free, walking out on her studio contract. Jack Warner sued for breach of contract. Davis did not win on appeal. 
But she did garner more than a modicum of instant respect from Jack, who was not readily known for such magnanimity. From here on in, Jack would allow Davis unprecedented autonomy; perhaps, assuming that with enough creative freedom she would eventually hamstring her future and fall back under his scrutiny and control. Happy chance for both Davis and Warner the projects she chose, not only proved to be surefire box office – despite occasionally deriving from the most unlikely premises – they were as artistically sound; elevating Davis’ prestige at the studio and the studio’s reputation for quality with female audiences throughout the war years. 
Now, Voyager is an atypical story of ‘ugly duckling’ transformation; Prouty’s own psychological liberation transplanted into the character of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) - a beleaguered Bostonian blue-blood whose overbearing mother (Gladys Cooper) has all but devastated her self-worth. Unafraid to play dowdy, Davis is made over as one of the most awesomely repugnant frumps, given clunky ‘sensible’ orthopedic shoes, a furry uni-brow, schoolmarm’s haircut and floral-printed house dresses, filled out with cotton-batting to give her a boxy figure. Davis plays these early moments for all their pitiable strength; her heartrending fragility scoffed at by her imperious mum, and casually made the brunt of jokes by a callously cruel niece, June (Bonita Granville). Only Lisa (Ilka Chase), an empathetic sister-in-law, knows how severely close to the edge of a complete mental breakdown Charlotte is; her plan, to whisk Charlotte off to Cascade, a pastoral convalescence home for the mentally ill, overseen by the benevolent Dr. Jacquith, exactly what is needed to rejuvenate and restore the girl back to health – and beyond. The sanitarium, managed by the elegant and as kind, Miss Trask (Katherine Alexander) is quite unlike anything modern psychiatry might have imagined. Certainly, psychoanalysis was then, all the rage; its probative methods in the treatment of delusions of the mind, the subject of many a Hollywood classic, from Selznick’s Spellbound (1945) to Anatole Litvak’s The Snake Pit (1948) and later, The Three Faces of Eve (1957).
To its credit and its storytelling strengths, Now, Voyager is not about the art and craft of psychoanalysis; nor, about investigating the inner workings of the human psyche, but a personalized tale of one woman’s navigation through its labyrinth with only marginal outside guidance and the power of her own self-reliance. After imposing his company for a brief tête-à-tête with Charlotte (she nervously reveals her mother’s overbearing presence throughout her impressionable youth not only ruined a burgeoning shipboard romance but also has since made her a veritable prisoner in her own home – isolated in her compulsive hand-carving ivory and hiding cigarettes behind the bookcases), Jacquith astutely surmises Charlotte is on the brink of total emotional collapse. He confronts Mrs. Vale in the library, unapologetically puncturing holes in the balloons of her hypocrisies about a daughter’s place – a child’s place. Twaddle! A person has rights – the most fundamental, to pursue happiness on her own terms with a mother’s unconditional love, without her meddling, but moreover, without fear of reprisals. While vehemently disagreeing with him, Mrs. Vale bitterly allows Jacquith to usher Charlotte away to Cascade, though merely to spare herself the embarrassment of having to face Charlotte’s malady. After an undisclosed period of rest, Jacquith allows Lisa to bestow a lavish respite aboard a luxury liner, far away from both the sanitarium and her mother’s detrimental influences.
Almost immediately, the cruise leaves a more lasting impression; the ship’s organizer, Mr. Thompson (Franklin Pangborn), pairing the mysterious Renee Beauchamp with the only other tourist travelling alone, Jeramiah Duveaux Durrance – Jerry, for short.  At first, Charlotte is quite uncomfortable with this arrangement. But Jerry is so utterly forgiving of her early resistances to even his most basic kindness; so completely willing to accept her on whatever limited terms she may permit, that she cannot help but gracefully fall for his charms. He confesses to being married and having two daughters; Tina (Janis Wilson), the younger, unloved by her mother just as Charlotte has been overlooked by her own, thus setting up an immediate kinship with this girl she has never met. Determined to take Dr. Jacquith’s advice, to be interested in everything and everyone, partake and contribute, Charlotte embarks upon a friendship with Jerry, bolstered by the confidences of his good friends, Frank (James Rennie) and Deb McIntyre (Lee Patrick). Deb confides in Charlotte the real unhappiness of Jerry’s marriage to Isobel; her martyrdom holding the noble man true to his vows, even as there is precious little else to keep them together.
Jerry and Charlotte spend a few days in Brazil; she taking the clipper from Buenos Aires after each agrees to never meet again, thus preserving their passion and memories of this brief and perfectly flawed rendezvous. Regrettably, Jerry is the first to break these terms, sending Charlotte a corsage of camellias to mark her arrival in Boston. Earlier, a bottle of Jolie Fleur perfume stirred Charlotte’s heart to inner warmth she thought quite unattainable. Now, the camellias strengthen her resolve to withstand the unabated cruelties of her mother, who has already decided Charlotte’s ‘transformation’ is a disaster. In readiness for her return home, Mrs. Vale has had Charlotte’s things moved downstairs to the room opposite her own, presumably to be closer and look after her needs. In reality, Mrs. Vale is desperate to keep a watchful eye on her daughter’s development – or rather, regression back to her former self. Having summoned the family for a social gathering this very evening, Mrs. Vale further informs her daughter she is to have her hair and makeup redone in the style befitting her former self, having already taken the liberty of hiring a seamstress to alter all of Charlotte’s unsightly old frocks to fit her trimmer figure. Miraculously, Charlotte playfully resists both requests and her own fragile temptation to succumb to the past; declaring a newfound independence by informing her mother she has no intension of retreating into her former self.
Deliberately falling down a flight of stairs to inflict maternal guilt upon this ‘ungrateful’ offspring, Mrs. Vale is defeated in her insidious plan; confined with a sprained ankle via Dora Pickford’s (Mary Wickes) street savvy nurse’s care. The rest of the family are agog at Charlotte’s transformation, but most willing to ‘accept’ her now as one of their own instead of ostracizing her as a social outcast. In the interim, Charlotte begins a blossoming romance with affluent divorcee, Elliot Livingston (John Loder, the ever-popular second string leading man who rarely got the girl in the movies). Elliot is smitten with Charlotte, but strangely unable to embrace her terms for a passionate affair. He makes engagement plans but is actually taken aback when she suggests an exotic vacation together where he can ‘make violent love to her’. The would-be romance cools, before being irrevocably dismantled when Jerry inadvertently resurfaces at the house party of a mutual friend.
Believing Charlotte is engaged to Elliot, Jerry nobly bows out, hurrying to the train depot. But Charlotte has broken off the engagement, hurrying to Jerry’s side to beg for his understanding. This given, only a short while later, Charlotte incurs her mother’s disgust. “I should think you’d be ashamed to spend the rest of your days as Charlotte Vale…Miss Charlotte Vale!” Things reach a fevered pitch as Charlotte unleashes her own long-overdue contempt for her mother, explaining “Dr. Jasquith says that tyranny is sometimes expression of the maternal instinct. If that's a mother's love, I want no part of it”, concluding with bitter remorse, “I didn't want to be born. You didn't want me to be born. It's been a calamity on both sides.” The truth sets Charlotte free – for just a moment; but it also causes Mrs. Vale to suffer a fatal heart attack.
Blaming herself, and believing she might suffer a relapse and another breakdown, Charlotte retreats to Cascade, where she discovers Tina is already a patient. However, Dr. Jacquith and Miss Trask’s methods seem to be failing the neurotic child and Charlotte quietly elects to become Tina’s guardian. Needy and craving a mother’s love, Tina is lulled into Charlotte’s cure by her sincere kindness. Charlotte makes Tina promise to keep their friendship a secret from her father. But Jerry soon discovers the truth, and, fearing Tina will ruin Charlotte’s chances to procure a happy life apart from her responsibilities to the girl, soon is determined to separate the pair. But by now, Charlotte has already decided upon her latterday purpose in life. She will transform her mother’s estate into a respite for needy children like Tina and serve in the capacity as a board member to help Cascade grow and prosper under Dr. Jacquith’s inspiration. Jacquith is both bewildered and impressed by Charlotte’s total transformation. 
But Jerry confronts Charlotte, hoping to learn the real reason for her devotion to Tina, suspecting she is merely clinging onto the girl to maintain a toehold in his life. The mood in this penultimate scene effortlessly shifts from dismay to confrontation, finally elevated by the sudden appearance of Tina, looking happier and healthier than ever. Jerry realizes Charlotte’s love for Tina is real. Moreover, she will not ask him to abandon Isobel or his other daughter for her, but rather, remain contented in the knowledge Tina will always remain a link between them. Asked if she can ever be truly happy with only this, Charlotte willing confesses, “Oh Jerry, let’s not ask for the moon…we have the stars.”
Buoyed by Max Steiner’s quixotic underscore, one of his finest in a peerless career, Now, Voyager is the quintessential ‘woman’s picture’; a shameless tearjerker that retains its ability to moisten the eye, even as it perennially warms the heart. Director, Irving Rapper illustrates a deft eloquence in Bette Davis’ ‘big reveals’; the first, as the grotesquely unattractive Aunt Charlotte, and the second, Charlotte, as re-imagined in haute couture a la a bona fide movie star; Davis playing it straight as the emotionally fragile heir-apparent, masquerading under an assumed name: Camille Beauchamp; the accomplished – and marginally guarded – woman of the world to whom Jerry will briefly devote himself. Owing to a convention of the time, Charlotte and Jerry are never seen sharing anything beyond a chaste kiss and those now famously lit cigarettes, presumably smoked without any afterthought for a freshly unearthed sexual liaison. But the clues are there for the audience to infer. Jerry, although caught in a loveless marriage to Isobel, is nevertheless devoted to their daughter, Tina in whom Charlotte can sense elements of her own sad childhood. Casey Robinson’s screenplay is neither particularly concerned with Charlotte’s rehabilitation, nor the specific path by which Charlotte and Tina establish their bond, only after a preamble of night terrors and crying fits has subsided. 
At its core, Now, Voyager is undeniably, and unabashedly melodramatic, so purposefully understated and supremely executed by the entire cast, it never fails to elicit more than a few moist handkerchiefs brought out to dab away well-intended tears. “Let us not ask for the moon…” Charlotte’s quiet ‘moon/stars’ declaration is perhaps, the ultimate expression of self-sacrifice brought forth from her particular ilk of complicated screen heroines.  Produced under a then ‘new agreement’ between producer, Hal B. Wallis and Warner Bros., Now, Voyager became one of the biggest money makers of 1942, and, in retrospect, the highest-grossing movie in Bette Davis’ long and illustrious canon of films. Somewhere along the way director, Irving Rapper quickly realized only one person was truly in charge of this production. Decidedly, it was not him.
Although Davis was cordial to Rapper, their artistic differences occasionally boiled over to delay the shoot, effectively leaving Rapper with nothing to do but acquiesce to his star's 'suggestions' in order to get the film in the can. He could have done worse, as Davis’ uncanny ability to make martyred females of classicist chic the epitome of classless and very classy self-pity, never becomes maudlin. Davis built her popularity on being attractive to both women and men. This ranks her as a very rare party of one – effectively playing upon the audiences’ empathy for these ‘sad tears’ of ‘an old maid’ if never in a harsh, unflattering or manipulative way. Thus, Charlotte Vale emerges as a very rare butterfly from her psychoanalytic cocoon; one to whom the prospect of an enduring unrequited affair de Coeur is not simply ‘the best she can hope for’ but rather an exalted place of worship where such blessed virginal atonement for the past may be considered on its own merit of forgiveness.
In all regards, Now, Voyager remains a superior entertainment - overtly sentimental, though never schmaltzy - and superbly played. Davis delivers one of her most memorable performances with an uncharacteristic quiet, tender grace. Paul Henreid shows why, for a time, he was considered the most elegant of the intercontinental lovers. Claude Rains is charming, suave and uber-witty as always.  Like most films from this vintage at Warner Bros., Now, Voyager comes on strong and never lets up. Casey Robinson's screenplay is a miracle of concision. In a little under two hours he manages an intricate balancing act between narrative threads of self-discovery, self-sacrifice and vainglorious flawed romance. Max Steiner's score is complimented by Sol Polito's sumptuous cinematography. 
It is amazing how many times we have seen the same staircase featured in the Vale family home in countless other Warner Bros. product (The Big Sleep, Mr. Skeffington, Humoresque, just three examples that immediately come to mind) and yet, looking remarkably fresh and inviting. Like all studios then, the Warner assembly line was masterful at changing up these variables just enough to make us believe in the magic behind its’ craftsmanship, as well as our own suspension in disbelief for the proverbial ‘happy ending’. Many years have passed, but Now, Voyager lives on as only the truly great romances of celluloid can. It doesn’t get any better than this, folks. It is highly unlikely that it ever will.
Another glaring omission from our hi-def catalogs, Now, Voyager ought to have made the leap to Blu-ray long ago. Warner Home Video’s DVD is almost reference quality. The benefactor of a complete digital restoration, it continues to hold up (mostly) under very close scrutiny, the gray scale herein is perfectly contrasted. Whites are clean and vibrant. Blacks are deep and rich. Fine detail is evident throughout. The image is crisp and free of age-related artifacts. Film grain is perhaps a tad smoother than anticipated, but nevertheless indigenous to its source. Not so good: there is a rather obvious amount of edge enhancement during several key sequences – particularly in the plaids, florals and spotted prints of Charlotte’s dresses. The Warner Archive (WAC) hinted in 2014 that Now, Voyager might be coming to Blu-ray very soon. It’s four years later and no disc. Pity that!  The audio has also been nicely cleaned up with one curious exception. The main title music appears to suffer from a slight muffled characteristic. Extras include an isolated score (something Warner Home Video no longer does on its releases but should…a genuine pity) and the original theatrical trailer. One wishes Warner had committed to at least an audio commentary on this deep catalog title, but there it is. None forthcoming. As the film's 1948 reissue tag fittingly proclaims, “…for now, for always; Now Voyager!” Very highly recommended. But a Blu-ray would be a nice surprise.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


CAMILLE (MGM 1936) Warner Home Video

When I watch a Greta Garbo movie I am distinctly aware of two great tragedies; the one unfolding on the screen by design; the other, more prolific and devastating, made by this elusive creature who would never again appear before the cameras after 1940 – retired at the age of thirty-six. For me, this latter realization of the resolute goddess denying us her presence, herself denied the luxury of appearing in anything beyond a little known and even more rarely seen screen test made for producer, Walter Wanger in 1949 – ten years after her self-imposed exile; this, is the Garbo of near mythical proportions and epic loss. The unicorn, the sphinx: an enigma bottled in a time capsule of her own youth, yet relegated to another lifetime entirely, to be forever misinterpreted and so completely misunderstood. For the record, Garbo never said she wanted to be alone…at least, not in real life. That famed quotation, like everything else we know or believe to be true about Garbo was, in fact, an invention of Hollywood; a line first uttered in rehearsed despair in Grand Hotel (1932) and since substituted as the leitmotif in Garbo’s own life.  But the reality is Garbo only wished to be ‘left alone’ – a fine line of distinction, perhaps, but applying equally to the press (who relentlessly dogged her every footstep for years) and to her fans (who continued to quietly stalk her around Manhattan while she shopped for antiques). Instead, Garbo chose to remain perennially loyal and available to those she trusted most – a very select group, indeed – but to whom she was quite simply a person of flesh and blood, perishable and sincerely alive: something she arguably never was on the screen.
For although there are few among her contemporaries (and virtually none in today’s batch of aspiring starlets) who can so readily ignite the screen with a mere flicker of sadness caught in her eye, Garbo on camera remains an adored mannequin, more prized than flesh, yet somehow less genuine and accessible. Personally, I adore this creature of light and shadow, realizing that in my adoration of the myth I am precisely the sort Garbo would have shied away from in life, to whom she would have drawn the curtains or shut the door in my face before I could be so bold as to utter “I love you.”  So perhaps, like that elixir of elusive femininity she plays in Camille (1936) it is best – at least for me – that she exists as an untrue memory in my heart where her intangible perfection can remain locked away; the guarded unhappy secret of this daydreamer obsessing over an apparition. Garbo is in the full flourish of her hypnotic faculties in George Cukor’s Camille; arguably, the film for which she remains revered, cherished and most fondly remembered as the great actress she so obviously was. In playing the doomed courtesan, desired by the impossibly handsome, Armand (Robert Taylor), a much younger love-struck optimist, Garbo positively glows. That she found queer strength in this character’s ailing is perhaps no great surprise. For Garbo knew something of heartache; better still, of the destructive nature of Hollywood sycophants who had once praised, then condemned her one-time lover, matinee idol, John Gilbert, into an early grave.
Marguerite Gautier is first introduced to us as the lady of the camellias, a rapturous courtesan with a naughty twinkle in her eye, selling herself for the luxuries that only money can buy; pretty flowers and exquisite clothes to lure even more prospective suitors to buy her things while she spends her time and energies elsewhere instead of on them. Yet behind the smile there lurks a timidity untainted by these decadent hours wasted in the mercantile trade of flesh; a commodity picked apart and readily exploited by Marguerite’s fair-weather friend; the saucy dressmaker, Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Cruise) who forewarns Marguerite she will not be young and desirable forever. Far from looking out for Marguerite’s well-being, Prudence is a straggler, all too eager to exploit her friends’ extravagances for money; living high on the parties she attends, populated by a motley band of disreputable users, devoted to nothing better or even as lasting as the gaiety of the moment.
Into this den of iniquity comes Armand Duval (Robert Taylor); a reveler as yet not made fully corrupt by these wily good times of his school chum, Gaston (Red O’Malley) and who freely falls almost instantly - passionately - in love with Marguerite. She thwarts his advances with playful abandonment, ignoring the truth in his sentiment as generic lust, and even more obtusely setting aside his genuine concern for the ailment that has already begun to erode her lungs. Armand cannot bear to watch as Marguerite struggles to breathe, whirling about the dance floor with wild abandonment, all but ignored in her obvious distress by these wicked indulgers, too self-involved in their own benign pleasures. Later, in Marguerite’s atelier, Armand throws himself at her head. He is so vital and so sincere that she momentarily surrenders the accoutrements of a jaded voluptuary, promising to be completely his if he will encourage her friends to leave. Marguerite informs her loyal servant, Nanine (Jessie Ralph) of this admirer’s return – a romantic pas deux cruelly denied when her most wealthy client, the barbarous Baron De Varville (Henry Daniell) unexpectedly returns early from a trip abroad.
The Baron is a deceiver, ruthless in his unquenchable thirst to possess Marguerite, not out of love, but to inflict and satisfy his own sadomasochistic fantasies. Thus, when Armand returns to Marguerite’s apartment, the way is barred. He leaves unfulfilled, though hardly bitter or saddened. Regrettably, there is time enough for these more destructive emotions to brutalize, torment and harden his heart. At a horse sale the next afternoon, Armand is reunited with Marguerite. She half-heartedly apologizes for their delayed reunion and he accepting whatever superficial favors of kindness she is willing to parcel off to him. Armand introduces Marguerite to his friends, Gaston and Nichette (Elizabeth Allen); Gaston’s bride to be. Their innocence is infectious, leaving Marguerite to reexamine her own life’s pursuits, only to discover how precious little time remains to make amends for all the wickedness she has chosen to live by.
When the Baron announces another trip abroad, Marguerite decides to spend her holidays with Armand at his ancestral home. There, she witnesses the vows of Gaston and Nichette and dreams in vain of the day when she will marry Armand. He is all too willing to make Marguerite his beloved wife. But Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore), knowing what scandal such a union will bring and sure to impugn Armand’s future prospects as a solicitor, begs mercifully for Marguerite to go away without ever explaining her reasons to his son. Realizing that in making such a request, Monsieur Duval has only his son’s future prosperity in mind, something Marguerite perhaps has not fully considered in light of her own, she reluctantly concurs, that to marry Armand would only drag him down to her level. She must therefore sacrifice her own happiness for the sake and longevity of his – alas, out of true love. 
When Armand returns, he finds Marguerite gone back to Paris, his discovery made all the more bitter after finding her on the arm of the Baron inside one of Paris’ more fashionable gambling houses. Certain her return to the Baron has been motivated by greed alone, Armand wins a considerable amount of money at the tables, confronting Marguerite before the whole of the establishment and angrily casting his winnings in her face.
She can buy her own grave as far as he is concerned. Little does he realize the prophetic nature of these remarks. For only a few days later, word arrives that Marguerite has been publicly spurned by the Baron – her reputation, even as a courtesan, in tatters. Moreover, she is now quite obviously dying and confined to her bed chamber. Learning of the severity of her condition and also of the self-sacrifice made on his behalf, Armand rushes to Marguerite’s bedside. He professes his love again; love that had never truly cooled, but rather was blunted, then masked, by wounded jealousy. Armand begs Marguerite’s forgiveness and pledges his life to hers, only to have her quietly die in his arms; the dream of their life together ended by this last cruel twist of fate.
Camille is superb melodrama. There is something of a bitter resentment in this lady of the camellias, Marguerite Gautier, dashing herself to pieces as a wave upon the shore; resigned to spare the man who must never know how deeply her still waters run. She, however, is incapable of existing without his love – a central theme in many a Garbo classic (Grand Hotel, Anna Christie, Anna Karenina, Queen Christina). For fans morbidly yearning to bear witness to such spectacular altruism, Camille is our drug of choice and Garbo the quintessential figure of martyrdom. It is a tale directed with the inimitable light touch only George Cukor intuitively understood, and in which the grandiosity of deepening depression bows our heroine’s spirit, fairly shattering the fickler devotions of her counterpart male beauty. And it all comes with an added kicker: the specter of death lurking about to claim this merciful angel back into the ether from whence she first deigned to emerge; fully formed and stepping into the satin light of William H. Daniels and Karl Freund’s sublime cinematography – the ultimate romanticized figure of feminine suffrage.
Exactly how much of Marguerite Gautier is in Garbo – or vice versa – is left to the ages and historians to ponder and discuss. Apart from being the consummate pro, Garbo is also the visual manifestation of this lyrical epistolary; the conjurer of her own illusive magic. Was she ever as real or just a figment of the imagination, taunting and tantalizing with her dumb show – laughing at us all as in Ninotchka (1939) or infrequently, through more bitter tears, as she does from the peripheries at Armand in Camille; one moment, deliciously pleased and reveling in her artfulness; the next, granite-faced and lethally stern, perversely to deny him genuine intimacy, yet perhaps compassionate and/or fearful to singe this mere mortal in the afterglow of her megawatt stardom.
Garbo is a luminous star in the cinema firmament; an untouchable apart and remote, so perhaps it should not have come as any surprise – profound or otherwise – that she chose a life apart from the rest after her all too brief tenure in Hollywood. In doing so she did we daydreamers a great favor, denying us Garbo – the illusion, perfectly preserved in the mind’s eye – while Garbo the woman continued to live and age among us. How could any reality removed from the one concocted by MGM hope to compete? And yet, just now, I would have preferred that Garbo much more to this splendid sybarite, blossoming like a ghost flower in Camille – much preferred to have basked in the friendship of such a relaxed raconteur, who deliberately spoiled any photographic attempts to immortalize her in later years with a finger brought up against her chin or hat casually raised in front of her face.
It must have been a very brave creature indeed, to have made the journey from her native Stockholm to Hollywood – more defiantly real to have faced those devouring flashbulbs from the paparazzi after Hollywood was through with her, or she with it – or both. Garbo today invokes a universal unfettered by the hourglass of time. The granules of sand slipping away for the rest of us somehow do not apply to her. She lives because of film – because of this film in particular – and because of all those hours concentrating on her carefully crafted persona in front of the camera – arguably, Garbo’s one enduring love affair. But she is never more alive than in Camille, revealing just enough about this bittersweet tart while never quite satisfying our insatiable need to truly understand the woman playing her. Or does she? Is Marguerite Gautier the Garbo of Camille or the Garbo from this mythology, of legend or of a more primal reality; one desperate to be recognized? Perhaps we shall never know. Then again…as mere mortals, perhaps we were never meant to.
Warner Home Video has done a competent job preserving Camille on DVD. But it is positively obscene that, at the cusp of 2018, there remains no tangible sign of this perennial three-hankie tear-jerker making its way to hi-def. I would sincerely champion the Warner Archive (WAC) to fast track this one to be remastered for Blu-ray. Garbo, like Gable, Lana Turner, Mickey Rooney and Garland, to say nothing of Esther Williams, Mario Lanza, Kathryn Grayson, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn, Joan Crawford, Heddy Lamarr, Elizabeth Taylor – has been woefully neglected on Blu-ray. Every time I see WAC green-light some C-grade clunker like The Green Slime or It Came From Hell to the front of the line – ahead of these aforementioned immortals – I sincerely want to throw up! But I digress.  
The B&W DVD image on Camille is relatively clean and stable for the most part. Age-related artifacts are present but do not distract. Contrast is solid. This is about as good as Camille has ever looked on home video, although, I will assume not nearly as good as it might look in 1080p. As it is quite obvious Warner Home Video has done at least some preliminary work on Camille to ready it for standard-def home video, I would really like to see them more aggressively pursue a campaign to bring it to Blu-ray. The DVD is not a perfect presentation, and indeed, with all the digital wizardry currently at their disposal it is high time Warner went back for a new scan of these surviving elements so that we can witness, at long last, the spectacle of Garbo in all her glory. The original mono audio has been cleaned up and is well represented. Extras include a very badly worn print of the 1921 silent version starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino, a radio broadcast of Camille and the trailer for the 1936 version. Bottom line: highly recommended... for now.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, November 20, 2017

MAYTIME (MGM 1937) Warner Archive

The Nelson Eddy/Jeanette MacDonald operetta craze reached its apex in supreme exaltation with Robert Z. Leonard’s Maytime (1937) a gloriously elephantine ode to love, superficially based on Sigmund Romberg’s smash hit Broadway show. Maytime – the movie – ought to have been an entirely different experience; its’ production schedule interrupted by the sudden untimely death of MGM’s wunderkind producer, Irving Thalberg on Sept. 14, 1936. Thalberg had envisioned Maytime as MGM’s first all-Technicolor spectacle and had even brought in the then 50 yrs. young Romberg to write four new tunes for this celluloid update of his much-beloved showstopper. Thalberg had also handpicked Edmund Goulding to direct the picture. Goulding’s reputation for wit and sophistication already possessed the mark of chic good taste Thalberg perceived as the perfect compliment to this very classy affair du Coeur. Alas, the results proved disastrous. After spending nearly $800,000 Thalberg and assistant director, Joe Newman concurred: the footage thus far assembled was a catastrophe. In a gutsy move, Thalberg resolved to reboot Maytime with a new director at its helm. But then Thalberg died, placing the project in indefinite turnaround. 
In the interim Jeanette MacDonald heavily campaigned to make San Francisco (1936) with Clark Gable. Although the co-stars were anything but kosher toward one another between takes, the film became yet another feather in MacDonald’s cap and she approached Maytime with renewed resolve to renegotiate her MGM contract, while garnering a newfound appreciation for co-star, Nelson Eddy’s good nature. Dubbed by the critics as ‘the singing capon’ to MacDonald’s ‘iron butterfly’, Eddy knew that apart from his undeniable presence as a baritone he was, at best invisible, and at worst, something of a minor disappointment as an actor. A capon is a castrated chicken and, while the inference to Eddy - as a man - seems more than a tad cruel (in point of fact, it is), as a performer it fits his acting rather succinctly. There is no hint of masculine passion or even a modest twinge of virility to his performances in either Naughty Marietta or Rose Marie and period costumes only amplify this shortcoming.  Indeed, Eddy was very self-conscious and this translates into a queer asexuality on the screen. Although undeniably handsome, there is something oddly waxen about Eddy as a performer – more mannequin than man.
From the vantage and pall of this unflattering assessment then, Nelson Eddy’s performance in Maytime comes off as a revelation, especially when directly compared to his two previous outings. There is verve to him in Maytime that is excitingly alive. Perhaps the delays in the production gave the singer time to rethink his approach to the material. Or maybe he had finally begun to mature as an actor. Either way, Eddy’s new level of confidence in front of the camera gave fans of the duo their first real taste of the MacDonald/Eddy chemistry, and a genuine reason to celebrate. From start to finish, Maytime was re-conceived and rewritten in just six weeks – a masterful feat of the studio system with all its pistons impressively firing in unison. Even if Noel Langley, Claudine West and Rida Johnson Young’s screenplay owed much more to Noel Coward’s Bittersweet than Romberg’s original Broadway show, the results were to prove a real winner with movie audiences the world over. In fact, the film adaptation retains only one song ‘Will You Remember?’ from the Romberg original stage score.
Cedric Gibbons’ art direction and resident Metro couturier, Adrian’s plushly designed fashions, particularly MacDonald’s flounce and frilly gowns, are lavish accoutrements in the vein of Thalberg’s genius for creating lush and lovely screen spectacles. Given Mayer’s natural distaste for such absurd spending it is a minor wonder the picture was made at all. Mayer’s one denial in the post-Thalberg redressing of Maytime was Technicolor – then, still highly experimental, very costly, and proving not altogether successful at the box office. So, Maytime emerged, looking supremely ravishing in glorious B&W; Oliver T. Marsh’s cinematography affording the eye plenty of sublime vignettes, capped off by the ground-swelling romanticism of an immaculately bedecked Eddy and MacDonald, warbling ‘Will You Remember?’ amid an orchard of honeysuckle, its bowers casting a shower of soft and glistening white petals all around. To minimize costs, Mayer encouraged Gibbons to reuse as much of the interior glamor from Thalberg’s other spendthrift indulgences on Marie Antoinette (begun under Thalberg’s auspices, though yet to be released by the studio); a similar fate imparted on the studio’s production of the Garbo weepie, Conquest (made and released the same year as Maytime). Given the run of Metro’s extraordinary studio-bound sets, props and free-standing back lot forests, lakes and sets, Maytime is a thoroughly striking amalgam of Euro-sophistication meets California glam-bam. It oozes worldly charm.  
Our story begins on the kindly counsel of an aged Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) bestowed upon Barbara Roberts (Lynne Carver) – a passionate ingenue whose head is stuffed with the cotton, hay and rags to riches daydreams of becoming a great opera singer in New York. Predictably, Barbara’s rather Teutonic fiancée Kip Stuart (Tom Brown) does not want her to go. The couple quarrels. After Kip leaves Miss Morrison confides in Barbara she used to be Marcia Mornay – the world-famous opera diva who sacrificed true love for her art. Although we are yet quite unaware, as Barbara is, what real sacrifice looks like, MacDonald’s fragrantly wistful sense of longing infers the tale that is to follow will not be all hearts and flowers. Thus, we regress in flashback to the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Marcia and her impresario, Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore) are invited to the French court to perform for Louie Napoleon (Guy Bates Post). Afterward, Nicolai tricks renown composer, Trentini (Paul Porcasi) into writing an opera exclusively for Marcia. Later that same evening Nicolai proposes to his protégé. Although she does not love him – and Nicolai knows this – Marcia agrees to wed out of a sense of loyalty for all Nicolai has done to help establish and build up her career. Overjoyed with the prospect of becoming a great operatic star (even if she has to sell her soul to get what she wants), and quite unable to sleep from all the giddy excitement, Marcia sneaks away for a midnight carriage ride after Nicolai has gone to bed. As fate would have it, the carriage breaks down in front of a tavern. While the driver begins his repairs, Marcia is drawn inside by the superb voice of Paul Allison (Nelson Eddy) a rather devil-may-care sort who lives in a nearby squalid one-room apartment with his music teacher, August Archipenko (Herman Bing).
Marcia is amused by Paul. He is nothing less than enchanted with her. Even so, August admonishes Paul for coming home so late, but is told that tomorrow Marcia Mornay has agreed to join them for lunch. She fulfills this promise, reminiscing with Paul and August about her home in Virginia. Paul steals a pair of opera tickets belonging to his friend, Fanchon (Sig Rumann) and attends Mornay’s last performance in France. However, at the opera Nicolai nervously spies Paul from beyond the footlights. Although he suspects Marcia and Paul’s friendship has developed deeper roots of affection, Nicolai is unable to justify these suspicions.  After the performance, Paul and Nicolai bump into each other in the hallway just outside of Marcia’s dressing room. She pretends Paul came backstage merely to congratulate her. But Nicolai is no fool. Moreover, he is the jealous sort. Paul is his competition for Marcia’s heart and he damn well knows it.
The next afternoon Paul and Marcia go ‘maying’ at the county fair; a golden afternoon of indulgences capped off by a romantic rendezvous in the pastoral hills outside of town where Marcia reluctantly admits she is on the cusp of fulfilling her promise of marriage to Nicolai. Paul desperately wants Marcia for his own. But she denies him their mutual love, marries Nicolai and departs Europe for a whirlwind tour of America. In the meantime, the forlorn Paul focuses his ambitions on his own singing career. Arriving in America to establish his own career with the New York Opera Company, Paul quickly rises through the ranks. Hence, when the company hires Marcia for their production of Traviata, Nicolai demands their choice of play be changed to the dourer Czaritza instead; less ‘artistic’ opportunity for Paul to rekindle his romantic passion for Marcia. Nevertheless, as the performances unfold in front of a live audience on opening night, the characters Marcia and Paul play are drawn into a spiraling passionate embrace that transcends art. Paul tells Marcia he will never let her go and Marcia agrees. She can no longer deny the love she feels. After the performance, Marcia fakes exhaustion to go home with Nicolai. But there she solemnly informs him she has decided to run away with Paul. Acknowledging Paul’s memory between them these past seven years of their married life, Nicolai – wounded and bitter – retires to his room, retrieves his pistol and trudges through the snowy streets to Paul’s brownstone.
Realizing too late where her husband has gone, Marcia runs after him. Nicolai arrives at the brownstone first. He tells Paul he has decided to give Marcia her freedom tomorrow, but he is giving Paul ‘his’ tonight. With this cryptic message Nicolai murders Paul. Marcia burst into the room and rushes to her lover’s side. He dies in her arms and the scene dissolves back to the present. A tearful Barbara thanks Miss Morrison for her advice. Kip returns and the two are reconciled with Barbara deciding to give up her career and become Kip’s wife. Drained of the strain of this lifelong secret, Miss Morrison quietly dies in her chair. She is revived as a youthful spirit and reunited with the perennially handsome Paul. The two walk away, hand in glove beneath the bowers of cascading honeysuckle; presumably destined to forever spend their eternity together.
Maytime is a marvelous movie; full of the sort of rank sentimentalism that warmed L.B. Mayer’s heart. And in viewing the film today one has to concur with its initial critical reception; Bosley Crowther declaring that, as a popular screen team Eddy and MacDonald had never been more ‘natural’ together. While Jeanette MacDonald’s performance in Maytime is consistent with others in her repertoire, Nelson Eddy’s is remarkably relaxed. He is convincing as both the loveable scamp when first introduced in the tavern, then as the more mature suitor who vows to rescue Marcia from her duty-bound wedlock to Nicolai. MacDonald effortlessly runs the gamut of emotions and ages, from precocious flirt to world-weary matron. John Barrymore lends a diabolical credibility to Nicolai Nazaroff, a man barely able to restrain his possessive jealousies. Herman Bing is a supremely satisfying bumbler; utterly charming in all his frustrated buffoonery.
Purging all but one of Romberg’s songs from his score composer, Herbert Stothart composed a twelve-minute aria inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony for Czaritza, then proceeded to repopulate the rest with songs from dead musicians whose work had fallen into public domain. Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots became a pivotal backdrop for the scene where Nicolai suspects a romantic entanglement between his wife and Paul. Other arias were borrowed from Donizetti, Verdi, Gounod and Wagner to fill in the musical gaps. At Napoleon’s embassy ball MacDonald trills the flirtatious Les Filles de Cadiz and the rousing Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse. Purely from a musical perspective, Maytime is MacDonald’s show. The only time Eddy gets to sing alone is at the tavern when Paul is first introduced to Marcia and the audience. Otherwise, virtually all his songs are duets with MacDonald. Yet, Eddy becomes every bit MacDonald’s equal in the dramatic scenes – unusual and absolutely thrilling for fans only able to identify him as the usually wooden accompanist and/or appendage to MacDonald’s long lineage of robust and hearty chanteuses.
When Maytime had its premiere in March of 1937 it was all but universally revered by the critics as a seamless fusion of the high ideals of classical opera meets the pop culture at the movies. Audiences flocked to see it. In fact, Maytime’s box office even outranked San Francisco that, until Maytime’s release, had been MGM’s top money maker of the year.  Today, Maytime still ranks among the best movie musicals of its vintage. Unequivocally, it remains the very best operetta/movie musical Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy ever made together. The picture is full of that champagne and caviar schmaltz, hearts n’ flowers lilting melodies that raise our spirits high, reaffirming – at least in the uber-glamorous realm of musical fantasy – that perhaps some of the hardships in life can be rectified in the hereafter.
We could us a bit of rectifying on Warner Home Video’s MOD DVD transfer. Maytime is a film that deserves to have its original negative (if one still exists) re-scanned and cleaned up. It also deserves a Blu-ray release. The film, as it currently exists, is decidedly grainier than usual or what is even acceptable by today’s mastering standards.  Grain structure is an inherent part of photographic film. But Maytime’s grain on DVD looks a tad digitized rather than natural. The gray scale appears to have had its contrast levels slightly bumped too, creating a harsher than expected visual characteristic with the mid-register tonality blown out and overall, quite unflattering. Age-related artifacts persist and are intermittently distracting. The audio is mono and quite strident in spots with some minor hiss and pop, as when MacDonald hits the high ‘C’ during Le Regiment de Sambre et Meuse. As with other films in the Warner Archive Collection, all we get with this offering is a theatrical trailer that – oddly enough – looks very clean and solid. Recommended for content – not quality of transfer. Bottom line: we need Maytime restored and reissued from WAC on Blu-ray – sooner rather than later!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


SAN FRANCISCO (MGM 1936) Warner Archive

MGM publicity of its day declared W.S. Van Dyke’s San Francisco (1936) the picture Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, teamed for the first – and only – time, were ‘born to fall in love’. I have often wondered about that; Gable’s rugged manliness pitted against the studio’s ensconced ‘iron butterfly’; MacDonald just a little too refined to give off smoldering sparks of sensuality to match or even triumph over her charismatic co-star's earthy animal magnetism. San Francisco is a resplendently superfluous bit of nonsense, masterfully sold as the epitome of chic good taste. Anita Loos’ screenplay moves like gangbusters through a fanciful yarn about a rough n’ tumble saloon keeper, Blackie Norton (Gable) falling madly for this regal chanteuse, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), who dreams of becoming a great opera star. He recognizes her class, but only insofar as it will lend an air of authenticity to his saloon, and, saves her from starvation, only to be repaid with a conflicted romance repeatedly stalled by Mary’s ambitions to rise above his station in life.
Above all else, San Francisco is a celebration of that lusty bygone mecca of pre-modern infamy where anything could be bought or sold; the hypothetical 'sin capital' leveled to the ground by a devastating earthquake in 1906. Loos incorporates the quake as the divining moment in Blackie and Mary’s relationship; the feuding duo reconciled by the consciousness each almost came to losing the other. Mary and Blackie’s resolution gets smoothed over by a third cog in this spinning wheel; Spencer Tracy’s Catholic priest, Father Mullin. In years yet to follow, Tracy would be called upon again and again to play benevolent clergy, despising every moment of it.  But in San Francisco, he is a sublime deus ex machina for these bitterly star-crossed lovers; so obviously right for one another if only she would let her tiara slip just a little and he could descend from his ego-driven soapbox to admit man does not live by ‘bread’ alone.
San Francisco is typical of the film fare Gable’s career, as the undisputed king of Hollywood, was built upon, shot quick and dirty by director, W.S. Van Dyke, whose guerrilla-style film-making – bringing his movies in on time and well under budget - was much in demand at MGM – particularly on L.B. Mayer’s watch after the Thalberg era had ended in 1936. Thalberg truly believed in Metro’s motto – ars gratia artis (or ‘art for art’s sake); that it mattered not how much a picture cost to produce so long as every last penny showed up on the screen. The profits would follow their ‘high quality’ output. Mayer, however, preferred to keep tighter reins on his budgets. Ultimately, San Francisco emerges as a clash between these two mindsets, begun under Thalberg’s auspices before his untimely death and thereafter begrudgingly afforded every luxury the studio had at its disposal by Mayer. Mayer could afford to be philanthropic where Gable was concerned. His numero uno male star had an unimpeachable track record for bringing in big box office.
Gable’s raw intensity as a 'guy's guy' never fails to impress. He remains an extraordinary figure from the golden age of Hollywood, unique in the uninhibited robustness of his physicality, the sheer breadth of his machismo (ostensibly, he never took his stature as a He-man seriously, thus making it even more deliciously appealing), as well as his sadly underrated acting chops to carry off this uber ‘superman’ persona, merely as par for the course and an extension of his own genuine self. In reality, Mr. Gable was a far more congenial and sociable fellow; relatively shy and much more interested in chumming with the boys than playing the field with the ladies. While on screen he always managed to convey something of the untamed and unattainable; a stud that every woman swooned over. But in private Gable had married young, and, to a much older woman who helped mold and shape his early career. On the sly, he sired a child with actress, Loretta Young before beginning a closeted affair with madcap comedian, Carole Lombard, who would eventually become the second Mrs. Gable during the shooting of Gone with The Wind (1939).
In retrospect, San Francisco does not appear at all the kind of picture Jeanette MacDonald would have preferred to add to her list of achievements.  MacDonald, so nicknamed ‘the iron butterfly’ because of her impenetrable resolve to do things ‘her way’ (almost as readily to lead her into temperamental conflicts with Mayer), had nevertheless reigned supreme in Mayer’s mid-decade resurrection of the musical operetta; having already come from a tenure as Paramount’s exotic bird of paradise, cast mostly in director, Ernest Lubtisch’s saucy European-themed musical mis-adventures. Metro attempted to maintain this inspiration of European sophistication, casting MacDonald opposite Maurice Chevalier in The Merry Widow (1933). But by mid-decade, Mayer had tapped MacDonald’s potential as half of a formidable operatic team; the other, belonging to the studio’s resident male baritone, Nelson Eddy (unflatteringly nicknamed, ‘the singing capon’ because he generally lacked sex appeal). Indeed, without MacDonald, Eddy is often a queerly emasculated figure on the screen. Yet, with her, he acquires an unusual and highly appealing sense of place – if not in the same league as Gable – then certainly capable of holding his own, particularly in their melodic duets.
The bulwark between Gable’s earthy magnetism and MacDonald’s ‘to the manor born’ gentility is Spencer Tracy’s Father Mullin. In life, Tracy’s demeanor – particularly in the thirties – could hardly be considered saintly. A conflicted, oft’ self-pitying and tortured artist, he drank to excess, and chose an enduring love affair with Katherine Hepburn over marital fidelity (as a devout Catholic, Tracy never divorced his wife). Nevertheless, ‘on screen’ Tracy remains the soul of rectitude. I suppose this is why they call it acting. And Tracy, for all his humanly flaws, remains another of the finest actors ever to appear in American movies. His initial screen test had not ingratiated him to Mayer who promptly told Thalberg, “We don’t need another galoot. We already got Wallace Beery!” Indeed, Tracy’s foray into movies illustrates the awkwardness Mayer initially had in discovering the actor’s niche. But Tracy’s placement in the cinema firmament is unique in that he lacks the physical appeal as a leading man and yet still managed to become one almost by default, owing to his on-screen chemistry with Hepburn in a series of popular ‘man vs. woman’ dramadies produced between 1940-1960. In between these lighter moments, Tracy also proved he could handle intense drama and stand alone as ‘the star’ of almost any genre. In San Francisco, Tracy is a figure of unruffled fortitude and compassion – a buffer for the romantic sparing between the obdurate Blackie and self-sacrificing Mary. She eventually forsakes her aspirations for high culture to perform the gregarious title song at Blackie’s saloon; bringing down the house – literally – with a little help from Mother Nature. 
Plot wise: San Francisco opens on New Year’s Eve, circa 1906. Loos’ screenplay concerns starving operatic singer, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald) who auditions for scamp nightclub owner, Blackie Norton (Gable). Although Blackie embarrasses Mary by asking to see her legs, he quietly softens when she acquiesces out of sheer desperation to land the job. Blackie hires Mary after she passes out at his feet…literally, if only from hunger. However, when socialites, Jack Burley (Jack Holt) and Maestro Baldini (William Ricciardi) hear Mary sing, they offer her a contract at the local opera house. Alas, Mary is bitterly forced to decline. Her contract with Blackie stipulates an exclusive ‘two year’ run. Burley offers to buy up the contract. Blackie can name his price. But Blackie desires to turn Mary into a ‘dolly’ – chiefly against her will, and moreover, because he is in love with her. Mary goes along with Blackie’s ideas because she has already fallen for him. But Father Mullin recognizes a brewing toxicity in their relationship. He suggests Blackie loosen the yoke on their professional arrangement so Mary can pursue her dreams of becoming an opera star. At first, Blackie resists. But when the strain of their relationship overwhelms Mary, Blackie allows her a brief respite from his ironclad contract.
Mary sings at Father Mullin’s mission church and later, under Burley’s guidance, she makes her operatic debut. In the balconies, Blackie quietly observes as Mary becomes an overnight sensation before his very eyes. Two things now become immediately apparent to Blackie: first, Mary has left his tutelage behind. She has outgrown him and can manage a career better than anything he could offer her. Second: Mary must make a decision where her future will reside – as Blackie’s romantic life partner, abiding by his rules, and held by rights under a slavish contract made to his saloon, or with Jack Burley – a man she does not love, but is willing to pursue in order to advance her legitimate career. When Blackie reminds Mary, he has not terminated her contract, merely suspended its terms temporarily, she storms off. A short while later Mary elects to return to Blackie’s saloon. After all, had he not ‘discovered’ her, there would have been no Jack Burley – not even the chance to succeed as she has since. Blackie is proud and boastful. He wants no part of her charity.
But Mary takes to the stage in a bawdy showgirl’s costume to belt out ‘San Francisco’ –  Bronislau Kaper, Walter Jurmann and Gus Kahn’s rambunctious anthem to the city by the bay. The packed audience, including Burley, is stirred to hysteria over Mary’s rousing rendition. But only seconds later the earth beneath the city begins to tremble uncontrollably. In the resultant chaos, the patrons panic and are trampled underfoot as an epic quake strikes, literally ripping apart the city and leveling its buildings to rubble. Douglas Shearer actually won an Oscar for Best Sound Editing, largely for this sequence. Indeed, the deep bass rumble and writhing of the quake is rumored to have terrified some theater patrons when the picture premiered in San Francisco. But it is James Basevi, Russell A. Cully and A. Arnold Gillespie’s special effects that remain a wonderment to behold; holding up even under today’s scrutiny; an ingenious amalgam of miniatures, full-size sets, models and rear projection; Oliver T. Marsh’s gorgeous B&W cinematography and Tom Held’s superb editing all conspiring to produce six minutes of exhilarating epic disaster.
Immediately following the cataclysm, surviving citizens begin their rescue and recovery efforts. To prevent the collapse of more buildings and stop a three-alarm blaze from consuming the rest of the city, the fire department is ordered to dynamite all existing structures whose foundations have been irrevocably damaged. This includes the Knob Hill fortress of Mrs. Burley, who watches helplessly as the family home her father built is leveled to the ground. Blackie finds Jack Burley’s remains buried beneath a pile of bricks, still clutching a feather from Mary’s gown. Mercifully, Mary is not among the dead. Blackie begs Father Mullin to help him in his search. But only after Mullin realizes the disaster has humbled Blackie before God does he lead him to the outskirts of the city where Mary is administering to the wounded and dying. Blackie gets on his knees and gives thanks for Mary’s survival, vowing to be a different man. Witnessing Blackie’s conversion, Mary returns to his side; a reprise of the song, San Francisco yielding to a dissolve from its fire-ridden decay to the contemporary metropolis it had become by 1936.
The last act of San Francisco is a fairly religious experience. As in the days when America’s film industry was collectively managed by self-professed pious individuals, showmen and moguls who fervently believed in God, country and the ten commandments…even the ones they never obeyed, the finale to San Francisco relinquishes its zest for crass commercialism to the nation’s Judeo-Christian allegiances promised to a higher authority. Partly to mask the dominantly Jewish-held control of the entertainment industry, though chiefly to appease and prevent government intervention via censorship of their cloistered kingdoms, the moguls helped to create a vision of America indivisibly wed to Roman Catholicism. This is embodied in the movie by Spencer Tracy’s benevolent patriarch of the church. The film’s first and second acts are structured around exposing the moral depravities of a city drowning in its own hedonism (highly sanitized and glamorized under Cedric Gibbons’ superb art direction).
The reformation that occurs in Blackie after the quake is indicative of the change in San Francisco itself; from its Sodom and Gomorrah-esque den of iniquities to a thriving cosmopolitan center, presumably dedicated to more altruistic human pursuits.  Viewed today, San Francisco ranks among MGM’s finest efforts from the 1930’s and one of Clark Gable’s biggest hits to boot. Alas, Gable and Jeanette MacDonald would never again appear together in a picture; chiefly due to MacDonald’s discontent while shooting the picture and Gable’s intense dislike of her. Although the property had initially been brought to MacDonald with shared enthusiasm, perhaps wisely thereafter, she realized the movie really did not belong to her. It remains a Gable picture, as any picture starring Gable (save Gone with The Wind) has remained so. There is just too much he-man on the screen to suggest anyone else could carry their share of the load. And while Gable’s ascension to the throne in popular entertainment would continue throughout the early 1940’s, until Lombard’s death and Gable’s enlistment in the war deprived him of that devilish ‘little boy’ quality he so infectiously possessed as a grown man, MacDonald’s tenure as Metro’s grand diva would rapidly fizzle after 1939. She made only a few films in the early 40’s, retiring from the picture business to pursue aspirations on the stage and a lucrative recording and radio career. 
In the past we have severely wished for more Gable back catalog to become available on Blu-ray. By 2018, this ought to have been a foregone conclusion. Alas, Warner Home Video has kept this one-time ‘king’ a closely guarded secret in its embarrassment of riches yet to be mined in hi-def. No Gable/no sale. How depressing. I will pause a moment here to express my discontent with both Warner proper and the Warner Archive (WAC) for not having taken a much more proactive stance on releasing more bona fide classics in 1080p. While WAC’s output has been much appreciated in terms of sheer numbers – and of course quality – their choice of catalog for Blu-ray teeters on the verge of becoming highly suspect; with ‘B’ and even ‘C’ grade fodder like ‘It Came From Hell’ or ‘The Green Slime’ taking precedence over movies like San Francisco. By now, we ought to have had more than a handful of examples from the Gable repertoire out there for public consumption in 1080p; starting with San Francisco, and presumably, to include such miraculous entertainments as Red Dust, Test Pilot, Idiot’s Delight, Honky Tonk and Boom Town – to name but a handful so undeniably deserving of the honor.
Warner Home Video’s DVD of San Francisco is quite stunning. Most of the B&W image exhibits a refined gray scale with a very smooth visual characteristic that is quite satisfying. Age-related artifacts are present to varying degrees throughout this transfer, appearing a tad heavier during the earthquake sequence. Contrast is solid, although there is some fading around the edges of the early reels and weaker than anticipated black levels. There’s also some very minor built-in flicker to contend with and the occasional water damage. But what is most remarkable about this DVD is how aggressive the bass tonality is during the earthquake sequence. Even in mono, the sound field suddenly comes alive with a thunderous ovation of crumbling brick, metal and glass; summoning nature’s wrath quite convincingly. *Please note: there are two competing versions of San Francisco currently available: the out of print (but widely available on Amazon) legitimately authored DVD and the WAC MOD-DVD reissue. The legitimately authored DVD contains an alternate ending, a few vintage featurettes and a rather clumsily produced 'documentary' on Gable's career. I believe the WAC edition has jettisoned all of these extras and is bare bones movie only. There are no extras. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

GASLIGHT (MGM 1944/British National 1940) Warner Archive

Few movies enter the public consciousness as enduring fond memories; fewer still, as bona fide works of art. But how many are lucky enough to become a part of the common vernacular? To ‘gaslight’ someone is to systematically drive them to the brink of mental collapse; an insidious means of twisting the truth to suggestively force the victim to question his/her most basic perceptions and, in the final stages, their very sanity.  If not for Patrick Hamilton’s London play, Gas Light (known as Angel Street in the U.S.), and the subsequent 1940 British film, Gaslight, directed by Thorold Dickinson, made a scant two years after the play’s debut, with only 3½ years separating it from George Cukor’s exquisite reinvention for MGM in 1944, we might never have known this term. Cukor’s remake is one of those rare occasions where both the passage of time and the very fact his movie came to this mantel of quality thrice removed have not only enriched its purpose and style, but systematically eclipsed its source material as well as the earlier movie. Indeed, part of MGM’s decision to remake the picture was predicated on the wholesale purchase of the rights: a contract with British National Films stipulating the producers of the 1944 film agree to destroy all prints and the original camera negative of the 1940 version. Mercifully, this never happened. Even so, comparing the two movies today, one can clearly recognize the technical superiority of Cukor’s remake, rightfully considered one of the most imaginative and spooky melodramas ever conceived.
In reworking the play’s premise, conspiring screenwriters, John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston did much to augment the suspense and thrill-soaked paranoia pervading the original tale; introducing a back story, only briefly touched upon in the play and virtually ignored in the 1940 movie; also, revamping all the main characters to add glamor and an air of intercontinental sophistication to the proceedings.  Hence, the play’s Bella Manningham, having become shrinking violet, Alice Barlow (played by Diana Wynyard) – the unsuspecting wife, moved into an upstairs flat once occupied by a wealthy dowager, brutally murdered within the first thirty-seconds of our story in the 1940 screen adaptation, in 1944 has morphed into Paula (embodied by the statuesque and formidable Swede, Ingrid Bergman); niece of a famed opera star, Alice Alquist (only depicted in portraits in the movie). Initially, Cukor had endeavored to evolve an even more detailed prologue; the actual murder taking place in silhouette, foiled by the sudden appearance of Paula (played as a child by Terry Moore), discovered by the killer, standing in the doorway; the murderer fleeing into the night before he could unearth the whereabouts of Alquist’s jewels.
Alas, it did not make much narrative sense that a killer would flee (when he might just as easily murder the young Paula too), or, for that matter, wait out a period of some years for the girl to mature into adulthood so he could marry her, and thus return to the scene of the crime to continue his search, while simultaneously driving his new bride insane. Some concision was required. Thus, Cukor opens Gaslight on a highly ambiguous note; a crowd gathered along the fog-laden corridors of Thornton Square (Pimlico Square in the 1940 film); their curiosity peaked by the emergence of a teenage Paula from the Alquist home (Bergman redressed in a little sailor’s hat and travelling cape to suggest the presupposition of youth, escorted by her kindly benefactor, Mr. Mufflin (Halliwell Hobbs). From this inauspicious beginning, our story immediately jumps ahead to Italy where Paula is studying music under Maestro Guardi (Emil Rameau); the noted impresario who once guided Alice into becoming a great star. Regrettably, Paula has not her aunt’s gift for song. She has, however, fallen madly in love with Guardi’s piano accompanist, Gregory Anton (the supremely suave, Charles Boyer). The lovers have kept their two-week affair de coeur a secret.  Gregory urges Paula to marry. And although she is undeniably head over heels in love, Paula first professes a need to go away on a mini-holiday alone to reconsider his proposal. Anton reluctantly complies with this simple request, but later, surprises Paula by arriving at her destination first. The two are married off camera and spend a few blissful honeymoon hours at the Hotel Del Lago. Prior to this subsequent rendezvous and marriage, Paula is introduced to the nosy, but otherwise kindly dowager, Miss Bessie Thwaites (Dame May Whitty) aboard a train. In revealing the plot to a novel she is presently reading Thwaites confides she lives in London, at No.11 Thornton Square, just two houses away from Paula’s late aunt.
It seems the past will not remain buried. Despite the inability of Scotland Yard to nail down either a motive or even suggest possible suspects in the homicide, Paula’s desire to put this sordid past behind her is thwarted when her new husband professes his dream to reside in a fashionable townhouse on a cozy square. Paula reveals to Gregory she holds the deed to Alice’s home. To please her husband, though perhaps equally to face her own demons, Paula agrees to return to No. 9 Thornton Square. In London, Paula is briefly reacquainted with Miss Thwaite before being ushered into the brooding and moodily lit inner sanctum of her not so distant past. George Cukor illustrates his masterful sense of pacing in this early sequence; the sets congested with all manner of Victoriana and cobweb-laden bric-a-brac. Characters in Cukor’s movies always move with a purposeful poise and yet, avoiding the obviousness of ‘hitting their marks’; the action, while meticulously plotted down to the subtlest nuance and camera angle, never giving the audience pause to think on it as either deliberate or unnaturally staged for the cameras.
Of course, neither Paula nor the audience is as yet aware Anton has been at the townhouse before; haunted by his own reminiscences of a botched jealous love affair with Alice Alquist; a letter written in his hand, but signed in his alias - Sergis Bauer, slipping from under a few choice pieces of sheet music nestled against the piano music stand.  Paula’s naïve reading of the love letter aloud causes Anton to go into a momentary – and seemingly inexplicable rage. Can Paula really be this green not to see Bauer and Anton are one in the same?  In retrospect, Ingrid Bergman’s casting is one of Gaslight’s great coups; her transitioning from love-struck child, to fragile woman, half-driven mad by her outwardly adoring – though categorically cruel and very wicked husband, only to rise like a phoenix from the brink and turn the tables on her deceiver, is the irrefutable acting highpoint of the picture. This is saying a great deal, considering the array of superb talents on display in Gaslight. At its core, Cukor’s Gaslight owes a great deal of its heritage to Hollywood’s then fascination with dark and menacing thrillers – mainly set in a perpetually foggy England: Fox’s remake of The Lodger (1944), and, Hangover Square (1945), MGM’s own remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945); the latter, released a full year after Gaslight but actually completed before it. The other casting achievement yet to be discussed is 18 yr. old Angela Lansbury who, in the pivotal role as the saucy tart, Nancy, fairly steals the show from under Boyer, Bergman and co-star, Joseph Cotten; the three established stars of the picture. Indeed, Lansbury, who celebrated her eighteenth birthday on the set of Gaslight, was Oscar-nominated; her appearance herein and as Sybil Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray leading directly to a long-term contract with MGM.
“This is a Cinderella story,” Cukor would later muse. Indeed, exactly how Angela Lansbury came to the attention of MGM is the stuff dreams are made of: one of many refugees belonging to the exodus from war-torn London, her Belfast-born actress/mother, Moyna Macgill (arguably sacrificed her own stardom so her daughter’s might flourish – though with some lingering professional jealousy thereafter), Lansbury was not only ‘fresh off the boat’ but relatively inexperienced to boot when Metro elected to cast her in Gaslight at Cukor’s behest; as much Lansbury’s ‘big break’ as it proved utterly daunting. “I was in very big company,” Lansbury would later muse, “But they treated me as though I was one of them. That gave me confidence.” Perhaps it was the Irish strain in Lansbury adding gumption from the sidelines to play the part, or likely, the reality she had known her share of hardships in youth: her beloved father, dead of stomach cancer when Angela was only nine – an event Lansbury would later describe as “the defining moment in my life. Nothing before or since has affected me so deeply”. Afterward, the young girl retreated into a land of her own make believe while Moyna pursued a career on the stage and in British cinema. Lansbury, a self-professed ‘complete movie maniac’; would continue to lap up the magic of the screen while briefly studying music and dance.
But the family’s move to North America was neither fortuitous nor immediately profitable; Macgill quickly realizes she had traded down her daydreams of becoming famous abroad for a nomadic life of hard work; Lansbury attending Feagin’s School of Drama and Radio as a latchkey kid, then lying about her age to land a job at the Samovar Club in Montreal to help support her two younger twin brothers, Bruce and Edgar. Returning to New York, Lansbury was to learn her mother had since gone ahead to Hollywood with even bigger dreams to fulfill. However, once ensconced in their modest bungalow in Laurel Canyon, things began to move quickly for Lansbury instead; a chance meeting at a party with screenwriter, John van Druten, leading to a casual suggestion made by Druten to Cukor he might have inadvertently met the ideal candidate to play the impertinent cockney housemaid, Nancy Oliver, in Gaslight; a part yet to be cast.
In the meantime, Louis B. Mayer was orchestrating the loan out of both Bergman and Joseph Cotten; their contracts held by producer, David O. Selznick. Throughout the 1940’s, Selznick found it more lucrative to ‘loan out’ his stars than produce homegrown projects; his undisclosed fee for Bergman’s services alone, rumored to have sent a grumbling Mayer back to Cukor to inquire whether any of Metro’s resident young female talent might equally do justice to the part. But Bergman was the star Cukor emphatically wanted, and, in hindsight, the one necessary to secure the picture’s everlasting reputation and success. In just a few short years, Bergman had blazed a trail from virtual unknown, cast as the ingénue in Selznick’s 1939 North American remake of her most popular European movie, Intermezzo: A Love Story, to become a much sought after A-list star of the first magnitude; thanks to high profile exposure as Ivy, the sexually humiliated and emotionally tortured bar maid in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and her even more enigmatic turn as Ilsa Lund, the mysteriously beautiful woman torn between two passions in Casablanca (1942). And Bergman, apart from her peerless and translucent allure, is riveting in Gaslight; arguably the first part that requires the very utmost of her acting talents; her wild-eyed depiction of this woman systematically questioning her own sanity, cementing Bergman’s presence as an actress of equal talents as good looks.
Paula’s harrowing descent into madness begins innocuously with the gift of a broach from her husband, rumored to be a treasured family heirloom. As the clasp is defective, Anton urges his wife to slip it into her purse shortly before they endeavor to go out on the town. A tour of the Tower of London and the Royal Crown Jewels results in an inauspicious chance encounter with Scotland Yard Inspector, Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten) who momentarily mistakes Paula for the spitting image of her late aunt. Later, Cameron confides to his superior, Gen. Huddleston (Edmund Breon) and curiosity about Alquist’s unsolved murder. Huddleston reluctantly divulges the particulars never made a part of the ‘official’ investigation; that Alquist was in possession of some famous foreign jewels, given to her but an admirer – an undisclosed ‘high-ranking’ personage. After Alquist’s murder, the disappearance of these jewels was marked as ‘classified’ and left quietly buried with the past. Alas, Cameron’s nagging interest with the new tenants at No. 9 Thornton Square remains unabated. Questioning Miss Thwaite, Cameron learns of a few oddities; Thwaite’s inability to glean any information about the couple from Nancy, who is as close-lipped as ever; though equally as flirtatious with the master of the house and fairly insolent toward Paula in tandem. The household’s cook, Elizabeth (Barbara Everest) is hard of hearing, though likely in possession of some slight observations about what has been going on behind these locked doors.
Cameron decides to appoint a bobby, Williams (Tom Stevenson) to patrol the neighborhood; also, to sidle up to Nancy in the hopes of coaxing more information from her. Meanwhile, Anton pursues his insidious campaign to drive Paula mad. He accuses her of being forgetful; of losing things, misplacing her thoughts and occasionally stealing and hiding pictures off the wall. Paula is unable to renounce his allegations outright; and yet, queerly, as ambiguous to explain who else in the household might have even the inclination to commit these perversions of trust. Each night, Anton leaves No. 9, presumably to work at his rented offices in town. In actuality, he has skulked around the neighborhood, discovering a back way into their townhouse, leading directly to the attic where all of Alice Alquist’s possessions are presently stored. Hearing the sound of footsteps on her bedroom ceiling, the dimming of gaslight brought on by Anton lighting jets in the attic while he conducts his meticulous search for the jewels, Paula cannot fathom anyone lurking about upstairs, much less her husband, since Anton has had the attic boarded up from the inside, presumably to prevent Paula’s bad memories about the murder from further plaguing her mind.
After some weeks of enfeebling her confidence, Anton decides to take Paula to a music recital hosted by Lady (Heather Thatcher) and Lord Dalroy (Lawrence Grossmith). The plush conservatory is full of polite society. Also in attendance is Inspector Cameron. Paula has been looking forward to this outing all week. But Anton has ensured his wife will suffer a very public nervous breakdown, having earlier hidden his pocket watch in her handbag, then implanting the idea Paula has taken it to satisfy her bizarre kleptomania. Unable to deny the discovery of the watch in her handbag, yet equally incapable of reasoning how it might have arrived in her possession, Paula tearfully loses control; her muffled whimpers interrupting the concert.  Anton apologizes for his wife’s outburst, quietly removing her from the salon. But once at home, he admonishes Paula as a malicious and vial mad woman, even suggesting her mother died in an asylum, likely from the same affliction presently torturing her mind. Meanwhile, Cameron learns from Williams of Anton’s nightly disappearances in the neighborhood. Having already decided Anton is guilty of something, Cameron pays a call on the household after Anton has already left for the evening, presenting Paula with the gift of a missing glove, one of her aunt’s most cherished possessions. It seems the glove was made a present to Cameron by the great lady when he was only a boyish admirer.
Cameron tenderly questions Paula. She gradually comes to trust his judgment, especially after he infers “you’re not going mad…you’re systematically being driven mad.” As to the dimming gaslight, the strange sounds emanating from upstairs, the incontrovertible evidence someone is in the house and playing tricks upon her mind, Cameron readily encourages Paula to reconsider Anton is responsible for all of these things – and quite possibly, a lot more.  Together, Cameron and Paula pry open the lock on Anton’s roll-top desk; discovering the hidden letter from Sergis Bauer. Cameron begins to piece together the clues; Bauer, Alquist’s piano accompanist from Prague, already married with a wife and child still living there.  Hurrying away before Anton’s return, Cameron takes Elizabeth into his confidence. In the meantime, Anton comes home; more frustrated than ever at not being able to locate the jewels. He goads Paula, drilling harder than ever into her still highly fragile psyche. Only now, Paula begins to question not only herself but her husband’s motives. Cameron returns, demanding justice and a confession from Anton. The two have a scuffle in the attic, Elizabeth calling for Williams to assist. Eventually, Anton is subdued and bound to a chair in the attic; Cameron hurrying to get help. Paula confronts her husband. He begs for her to free him. But instead she produces a knife, playing a startling game of cat and mouse as she repeatedly threatens his life. Is she serious, or has he truly driven her mad enough to kill?
In the end, Paula reveals to Anton she has not lost her mind despite his best efforts; that she has no intention of freeing him now; the discovery of the jewels sewn into Alquist’s costume a moot point, as Anton is going to prison for a very long time for Alice’s murder. An unrepentant Gregory Anton is led away without even a smidgen of remorse. Her nightmare at an end, Paula is comforted by Cameron; the pair standing together on a balcony in the attic. She poetically declares, “This night will be long” to which he quickly reframes her unhappy thoughts to suggest the fog – both figuratively and literally – is already lifting from her life; the night too shall pass, and, above all else, things will look very differently in the morning. Cameron vows to be of comfort to Paula. As they approach one another for an embrace, Paula and Cameron are spied by Miss Thwaite, who readily approves of this match from a distance as we fade into the end credits.
Gaslight is a formidable achievement. Indeed, Cukor could not have been more pleased with the final results; the picture winning Bergman her first Best Actress Oscar. Despite uneven critical reviews, Gaslight also was a financial success. For the most part, the production encountered no problems, marred only by one incident involving Angela Lansbury. Years later, in reflection, Cukor insisted, “On the first day of shooting, even though she (Lansbury) was only seventeen, and had no experience, she was immediately professional. Suddenly I was watching real movie acting. She became this rather disagreeable little housemaid – even her face seemed to change. I was delighted with her from the start.” But Lansbury recalls a slightly different scenario – one for which she has long since accepted full responsibility. It seems an assistant director came to Lansbury on set to inform her she could go to an early lunch as the sequence being filmed did not require her presence. Unaware she lacked the authority to do so, Lansbury promptly informed costar, Barbara Everest she too could leave so they might lunch together, when, in fact, Everest was needed for another take. After enjoying their lengthy luncheon, the pair was met on set by Cukor, who rarely fumed in public, but when he did, gave every indication of being a veritable Vesuvius. “Boy, did I get a dressing down that day!” Lansbury recalls, “But he was right and I was wrong.”
Interestingly, Gaslight is a film as sparsely populated in its underscore (a few choice cues and main title written by resident composer, Bronislau Kaper) as it remains cluttered from floor to ceiling in Cedric Gibbons’ art direction and Edwin B. Willis’s set decoration; an out-and-out pastiche of studio-bound Victoriana, with immaculate costuming supplied by designer, Irene. Its’ virtues – at least visually speaking – are readily the result of Metro’s formidable back catalog in props; a grand storehouse of virtually any and everything a film maker could desire to stage a movie; all of it meticulously cataloged in vast warehouses spread over the girth of the studio’s then extensive land holdings. More is the pity, then, virtually all of these gorgeous accoutrements became the subject of a snatch and grab sell-off in the mid-1970’s; the shortsightedness of Metro’s new management, quite unable to see how such a staggering array of artifacts – many of them undeniable museum pieces – could best be put to use, except to auction everything off, lock stock and barrel, to the highest bidder; and, in retrospect, for mere two-pence their innate value.
Gaslight endures on home video via the Warner Archive. Initially, Warner Home Video released a legitimately authored DVD version, including both the 1940 and ‘44 versions on a DVD-50 flipper disc, accompanied by a truncated ‘making of’ featurette hosted by Pia Lindstrom and featuring snippets and sound bites from Angela Lansbury. In either incarnation the results are slightly below par and it would behoove WAC to reconsider doing a complete remaster of this engrossing film for a new Blu-ray release in 2018. Aside: If Gaslight ever makes the leap to 1080p it, along with a good many other B&W MGM movies already transferred to home video on DVD needs its main titles stabilized. I am really tired of watching main titles with a barrage of edge effects (Criterion’s The Philadelphia Story still looks atrocious!). I don’t understand what is so gosh darn hard about eradicating edge enhancement (a digital anomaly) from a hi-def scan – especially one remastered from elements scanned in at 4K. Fix this, folks! Please, and a premature ‘thank you’! 

So, we will wait in the hope of better things. For now, the DVD of Gaslight is adequate – though, just – suffering from occasional and very distracting edge enhancement and some thicker than anticipated film grain, infrequently looking digitized instead of indigenous to its source. The B&W elements are in fairly solid shape, although certain scenes appear to suffer from less than perfectly balanced contrast; the image, a tad too dark, causing finer details to get lost in the mire. Overall, the quality won’t disappoint. But it doesn’t win any awards either, and singularly fails to impress; a shame, since Joseph Ruttenberg’s cinematography is another chief asset in this peerless production. The ’44 version fairs much better than its processor, which has low contrast and a host of age-related artifacts to contend with; beginning rather abruptly and suggesting some introductory screen credits have been unceremoniously lopped off. The audio for both versions is mono, as originally recorded and in fairly good standing; no hiss or pop and clear-sounding dialogue. Again, Gaslight on home video is hardly perfect. The movie is, however, and chiefly the reason this disc gets my wholehearted recommendation. Movies as finely crafted deserve far better on home video – and, if anyone at Warner Bros. is listening – on remastered Blu-ray…pretty please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)