Sunday, May 24, 2015

THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1943) Warner Archive

Warner publicity heralded David Butler’s Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) as “a million shows in one and one show in a million.” Unhappy chance, for posterity the finished film is more a compendium of outtakes and experiments than one cohesive ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show!’; an embarrassment of riches from the Warner Bros. stable squandered as they are unceremoniously thrust together in an undernourished claptrap written by Norman Panama, Melvin Frank, James V. Kern, itself based on an ‘original’ story idea by Everett Freeman and Arthur Schwartz. I’ve placed ‘original’ in parentheses because there is virtually nothing ‘original’ about the scenario being marketed herein. Virtually every studio in Hollywood made all-star tributes to the gristmill in wartime propaganda: MGM with the lavishly appointed, Thousands Cheer, and Warner with a reworking of Irving Berlin’s galvanic WWI stage smash, This Is The Army (both released the same year as Thank Your Lucky Stars) and Warner, again, in 1944 with Hollywood Canteen – arguably, the best of the lot. On this outing, Jack L. Warner has trucked in a satchel full of his top-notch talent for a tired ole yarn that any rudimentary scriptwriter could have cobbled together while sitting on the loo: unknown singer, desperate to make good, becomes famous. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Thank Your Lucky Stars is a warhorse in the truest sense of that word. Long before it became fashionable a la a Michael Todd to give high-priced talent ‘cameos’ in a big-budgeted extravaganza, Thank Your Lucky Stars derives an almost fiendish pleasure from forcing its celebrity entourage to act and behave as they never have before. Ergo, we get Errol Flynn doing a cockney pub crawl buck n’ wing and Bette Davis croaking a minor Arthur Schwartz/Frank Loesser ditty, ‘They’re Either Too Young or Too Old’. In this topsy-turvy milieu anything is possible. Tough guy, Humphrey Bogart, playing a derivative of his ‘murderer’s row’ rogue’s gallery of thugs (that made him the most dispensable ‘meanie’ in the studio’s series of gangster flicks throughout the 1930s), has his wings clipped by the comic relief, Dr. Schlenna (S.Z. Sakall), who promptly gives him a stern dressing down. Hattie McDaniel screams ‘Ice Cold Katy’ with raw, impassioned heat that is truly grating on the acoustic nerve, and, Jack Carson and Alan Hale make mincemeat of ‘Way Up North’ – a polar-themed ‘specialty’ putting the freeze on entertainment value with its crudely executed emphasis on bombast.
Thank Your Lucky Stars is not so much a movie as a musical revue and at least in this regard the film is on very solid ground. No less than 27 songs are sandwiched into 127 minutes of screen time; a goodly sum, including the regal ‘Good Night, Good Neighbor’, made melodic and satisfying by our aspiring ‘star’ - Tommy Randolph (played with congenial charm by Dennis Morgan). Morgan is one of those underrated talents from Hollywood’s golden age, possessing all of the accoutrements one could possibly hope for in a leading man (looks, intelligence, charm and talent) yet, somehow, never quite going beyond the ‘second string’ in popularity. When Morgan sings, it is with a smoothly assured yet unassuming lithe charisma – more energetic than say, Perry Como. He and Joan Leslie (the latter dubbed by Sally Sweetland) acquit themselves nicely of a trio of light-hearted ‘boy meets girl’ melodies. But Morgan is far better than this material and it shows. He ought to have had a bigger singing and movie career. The other musical talents on tap in Thank Your Lucky Stars range from oddities to pros; Eddie Cantor, attacking the infectious and bouncy, ‘We’re Staying Home Tonight’ with all the knock-down/drag-out verve of a seasoned Vaudevillian, while Dinah Shore trills with silken smoothness the movie’s love ballad, ‘How Sweet You Are’ and also introduces us to the effervescent title tune; sung as a radio broadcast number at the start of the picture.
I suspect the joy in seeing Thank Your Lucky Stars today derives from its quaintness for picture-making from another time when the cultural mindset was desperately craving escapism from the perils of the European conflict and Hollywood was as determined to throw everything it had at the paying customer except the proverbial ‘kitchen sink’ to ensure good box office. To be sure, there are nuggets of pleasure still to be mined from this experience, and the movie is hardly a washout.  For me, the tragedy of it is that it never settles on telling its story; the two principles, Tommy and his fresh-faced Suzy Cream Cheese – Pat Dixon (Joan Leslie) simply used as dialogue filler between the comedy skits and litany of songs paraded across the screen. The inspiration for this pairing is so obviously transparent and heavily borrowing from MGM’s spate of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland ‘barn yard’ musicals, except without the Rooney/Garland chemistry or the clever writing to integrate plot and songs into a singularly appealing entertainment. It’s as though the screenwriters have gathered together Schwartz and Loesser’s sheet music and methodically plotted exactly how many words of exposition will get them from one song to the next. Tommy and Pat’s lines are strictly by the numbers ‘darling, I love you/me too’ playbook exchanges torn from the first act of the ‘boy meets girl’ tradition. It’s more than a little difficult to get one’s knickers in a ball for this sort of ‘love interest’. Worse, the wordsmiths responsible for this scenario seem to have forgotten to build a dramatic arc for our hero and heroine to ascend. There is never any doubt this will end happily and very few complications or road blocks set up for Tommy to overcome on his rise to fame.    
The plot, such as it is, begins during a radio broadcast; Dinah Shore emoting ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’. Afterward, M.C. Eddie Cantor has to fend off a half serious/half punchy John Garfield, lampooning one of his film noir tough guys. In the audience, observing this program are theatrical producer, Farnsworth (Edward Everett Horton) and musical conductor, Dr. Schlenna (S.Z. Sakall), who concur Shore would be ideal for the debut of their ‘Cavalcade of Stars’ live show. One problem; to get Shore, the duo has to first engage Cantor with whom she has an exclusive five year contract. Convincing Cantor to loan out Dinah isn’t the problem. Compelling Cantor to butt out is! Soon, the bombastic impresario is commanding the rehearsals and making impossible demands on Schlenna and Farnsworth; also, the show’s cast and crew, writing changes into the script and rearranging everything to turn their endeavor into his comeback special. Meanwhile, in another part of this megawatt starry-eyed Hollywood land of make-believe, unknown song writer, Pat Dixon (Joan Leslie) is desperately trying to pitch her new tune, ‘Moon Dust’ to unknown singer, Tommy Randolph (Dennis Morgan) and Joe, a tour bus driver (played by Cantor, again). She is, of course, initially unsuccessful, but quickly relegates her own dreams to embrace Tommy’s chances to perform in the Cavalcade of Stars. Together, this trio concocts a plan to kidnap Cantor and replace him with Joe, who is, of course, a dead ringer. Without too many complications, the ploy works. Cantor disappears and Tommy gets the opportunity to perform; becoming (wait for it) the big new discovery of the show.
It is usually customary for the finale of such musical revues to be a showcase for glamorous stars doing what they do best. In Thank Your Lucky Stars case, the finale is a grand experiment, placing most of Warner’s backlog of talent on very shaky ground, presumably to provide them with the opportunity to expand their range as performers. This enterprise is only marginally successful. Hattie McDaniel – as example – is no singer and proves it. Ditto for Bette Davis, who barely hits the right – and frequently teeters on some very sour – notes while lumbering through, ‘They’re Either Too Young or Too Old’.  The most impressive of this ‘fish out of waterlogged’ lot is Errol Flynn singing ‘That’s What You Jolly Well Get’ as a playfully obnoxious, booze hound cockney. Not only is Flynn in good voice, he displays superb fluidity in his dancing. Flynn really was far more than the swashbuckling he-man he portrayed throughout the late 30’s and early 40’s. It is a pity Jack Warner never bothered to capitalize on his formidable array of talents by offering him a big budget musical of his own as the studio did with another of its tough guys, James Cagney.
The misfires in Thank Your Lucky Stars are truly cringe-worthy; especially Ann Sheridan’s wickedly atrocious Mae West lampoon; ‘Love Isn’t Born, It’s Made’; cavorting with a hip-swiveling tease, belied by Sheridan’s even more uncomfortably classy façade. Olivia DeHavilland and Ida Lupino, flanked by George Tobias, drown in their mercilessly bad jive routine. The corn is brutally deep in Jack Carson and Alan Hale’s ‘Way Up North’. Interestingly, Humphrey Bogart is top billed amongst this compendium of famous faces, even though he has but six lines in the entire movie; appearing unshaven and suggestively down on his luck. He accosts Schlenna back stage and is quickly – and quite idiotically – demolished by our portly impresario before turning to the camera and muttering, “Gee, I hope my fans don’t find out about this”; a rather telling sentiment. We go from bad to worse in the picture’s finale, Anton Grot and Leo K. Kuter’s art direction placing this glittering entourage of stars in gondola-styled astrological signs, sailing around on their bottoms or clinging to planets while performing reprises of their painful routines.
Not everything is terrible, but so much of Thank Your Lucky Stars just seems to have been culled from a bunch of bad to downright idiotic ideas slapped together with a little greasepaint and duct tape that the results don’t really prove thrilling so much as they sink like the proverbial stone to the bottom of some nondescript artistic dreck. Undeniably, Dennis Morgan emerges from this mire the winner. Either crooning ‘I’m Ridin’ For A Fall’ to Joan Leslie or observing as a pair of Latin Lotharios frenetically toss glamor queen, Alexis Smith around a tropical backdrop while Morgan coos, ‘Good Night, Good Neighbor’, here is a guy who ought to have been a big star; in fine voice and possessing an enigmatic – if congenial – screen personality. There’s no edge to Morgan, but he doesn’t really need it. He’s good to look at and, like Cary Grant, makes the most of his physicality by downplaying the fact he was the studio’s idea of their hunk du jour.  But Morgan is hampered in having Joan Leslie as his co-star and romantic interest. She is too plucky and trying much too hard to find reasons to want to see him – either naked or succeed. The arc of their ‘romance’ is fairly impossible to detect. Tommy and Pat are immediately drawn to one another and never experience the standardized pre-marital hiccups every movie-land couple goes through before saying ‘I do’. As there is virtually no excitement to this ‘happy coupling’ and no challenges for them to overcome, we pin our hats and our focus on the movie’s plot. Oh right, there isn’t any. So, the onus is on the musical program to carry the load. It does, but just barely; the audience suffering through the oddities to get to the cream.   
Eddie Cantor manages to insert every wise crack and lowbrow pithy retort in his formidable back catalog of Vaudevillian tricks, most holding up quite nicely. Dinah Shore’s stand out moment comes late in this caravan; bedecked and bejeweled as a southern belle, twittering the melodic, ‘How Sweet You Are’ – the grandest of the production numbers, and oozing the appropriate amount of stardust and ornamental magic. And then, of course, there is S.Z. Sakall – one of filmdom’s most unique and endearing treasures. He is marvelous as the harried conductor. After an uncooperative elephant turns his back to Schlenna and Farnsworth, the latter angrily declares, “This is the end!” the nonchalant and self-effacing Sakall glibly replies, “Yes, I can see that.” In the final analysis, I suppose we should all ‘thank our lucky stars’ this sort of thrown together entertainment is a thing of the past. The talent is undeniably present and accounted for, but the material they are given makes the least of their appearances and opportunities to shine.
There is nothing second rate about Thank Your Lucky Stars on Blu-ray. Frankly, I am astonished this title has found its way to hi-def ahead of the other wartime musical revues mentioned elsewhere in this review. It is to the Warner Archive’s (WAC) credit that, once again, we have a vintage catalog title looking immaculate and sparkling on home video. My admiration for the archive has grown exponentially with each of their hi-def releases. Clearly, a lot of work has gone into remastering all of the movies in this archive. Alas, I suspect the archive is being hampered in its procurement of more worthy back catalog by Warner Home Video proper; eager to hang on to the ‘bigger’ titles for their own widespread release at some later date. I’ll simply state the obvious and be done with it: first, I cannot imagine a massive interest – even from die hard collectors – for Thank Your Lucky Stars, the sales from this disc likely not to surpass the formidable cost incurred to make this 1080p transfer look this good. Second, unless WAC begins to release some higher priority titles soon, they may be in danger of losing their market share. Is it really too much to ask WHV to release to its own archive some better classics that would likely sell like hotcakes given half the chance?
I can start a list of them right now off the top of my head: Marie Antoinette, Random Harvest, The Yearling, Romeo & Juliet, The Big Sleep, Key Largo, Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), Pride and Prejudice, The White Cliffs of Dover, The Bad and the Beautiful, Executive Suite, Mrs. Parkington, The Student Prince, This is the Army, National Velvet, Mildred Pierce, The Damned Don’t Cry, Humoresque, A Woman’s Face, Flamingo Road, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, High Society, Brigadoon, Weekend At the Waldorf, The Valley of Decision, The Brothers Karamazov, The Goodbye Girl, A Touch of Class and on and on. The focus of the archive ought to be on making such first tier classics shine. Third tier classics like Thank Your Lucky Stars can also be given such consideration, but not at the expense of making us wait for movies that would satisfy collectors more and fill the Warner coffers as did the WAC release of Out of the Past. Now, give us Murder My Sweet, Side Street, Mystery Street, They Drive By Night, etc. et al.     
How does Thank Your Lucky Stars look on Blu-ray. Perfect. Warner’s old DVD was very solid but this new 1080p rendering blows it out of the water. The B&W elements have been nicely cleaned up and fully restored. Contrast levels are superbly balanced. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are bright, though never blooming. The image is razor sharp with good solid grain and virtually NO age-related artifacts to distract. Again, perfection itself! The audio has been given no less consideration. This is a reference quality disc, but of a very mediocre movie.  If WAC was heaven-bent on releasing a war-themed musical as part of their 2015 slate, they had better contenders in their hopper than this!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Saturday, May 23, 2015

THE ROSE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1979) Criterion

Bette Midler brought every last drop of blood, sweat and tears to her quasi-Janis Joplin-esque performance in Mark Rydell’s The Rose (1979); a tragi-drama owing much more to the concert venue documentary than the traditional Hollywood musical. Midler’s iconoclastic turn as the crude and burnt out rocker, Mary Rose Foster, a recovering drug abuser and chronic alcoholic on the verge of a nervous breakdown, became her signature and calling card to the movies; an electric debut, imbued with all the raw intensity for this seedy backstage pass into the world of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. In many ways, The Rose is a painful film to get through because, like most showbiz yarns, it reeks of more truth than the general public is willing to allow these deified creatures, thus anointed as ‘stars’. Stardom is, of course, a myth; the sacrificing of a quiet, private life for the intangible and oft’ aberrant allotment of fame and fortune at the expense of the fundamental human necessity to belong; anchored to a place and perhaps even someone to love (and be loved in return), is a heady ascendancy to which many thirst for, few are called, and fewer still survive without the inevitable heartaches and self-destructive behaviors; The Rose is perhaps the truest depiction of that alternative universe the layman daydreams about, only because he/she knows virtually nothing of its nightmarish insidiousness and manipulative perversity by which all the seemingly effortless glamor and adulation are wrought.
Midler knows something of this milieu, being a seasoned stage performer for almost fifteen years by the time she was cast in The Rose. Director, Mark Rydell had seen her live concerts – an infectious blend of comedy and song, and was convinced from the outset she would be ideal for the project he was planning; then, very much a biopic of the late Janis Joplin entitled, ‘Pearl’. Approaching Midler’s agent/lover, Aaron Russo to pitch the script, Midler was not immediately drawn to the project. She had, after all, been a Joplin devotee and felt the screenplay by Bo Kirby veered too far away from homage into a tabloid-esque exposé. Rydell did some fast talking. But only after he agreed to alter the premise to a wholly fictional character did Midler slowly begin warming to the idea. The Rose does, in fact, capture and bottle the essence of that late 70’s travelling caravan; Vilmos Zsigmond’s lurid cinematography bathing Midler’s gangly and conflicted heroine in gaudy and over-saturated hues. Costume designer, Theoni V. Aldredge clothes Midler in an array of form-fitting and flowing pinkish/mauve chiffon and sequins, trailing behind Mary Rose like the flaming tail fires off an F/A-18 Hornet. There is something to this parallel; Midler’s inability to embrace any relationship that might, in fact, be good for her, stinging virtually any chance for a genuine lover to leave his mark on her already incredibly scarred remains.
Midler’s staggering star quality is evident in virtually every frame. Moreover, she lets the pain show; drenched in heart-palpitating beads of frantic sweat and exhaustive tracks of mascara-streaking tears as she screeches and staggers through her penultimate farewell, ‘Stay With Me’ or romps about the proscenium with an infectiously inspired jaunt a la Mick Jagger during ‘Midnight in Memphis’ – a rock anthem if ever there was one. Here is a creature so ruled by the spontaneous blaze of her own emotions she is bound to have her heart burst or, predictably, be repeatedly broken. Beneath her raunchy façade, however, is a fragile flower; a lost little girl, aged and frightened beyond her years, desperate to please, yet determined to strike a blow for her own independence from a tyrannical manager, Rudge Campbell (Alan Bates), whose sole interest in her is as a lucrative meal ticket.  Bates is superb as this cutthroat, greedy and manipulative wrangler; a bottom feeder, constantly exploiting Rose for PR junkets and the all-important, juicy little sound bite that will further her career – and thus, fatten his own pockets.
Few movies before The Rose even hint at the darker side of celebrity; George Cukor’s 1954 classic, A Star is Born, and later, Ronald Neame’s I Could Go On Singing (1966, and ironically both starring Judy Garland) probably the most obvious and frank examples to date. Transferring the ambiance from the mecca of starlit movie-land to this ever-shifting nomadic existence of a concert-touring rock diva, lends an air of disquieting loneliness to the story, essential to Rydell’s illustration of just how isolated and friendless fame and fortune can be. Here is an inescapable purgatory with its preference of lovers to husbands and hotel rooms to any sort of stable home life running against the grain and sanctity of self-preservation.  Life itself – apart from the few hours Rose spends on stage, being adored by the nameless fans – really does not amount to much beyond a good belch of booze and ashtrays full of cigarette butts. If we are to believe as much, as decidedly Rydell and Midler want us to, then to be beloved by the masses is a hell populated by sycophants.
If only for this revelation, The Rose would already be a very depressing movie, except Rydell interpolates his perilous and oft’ reviling drama with examples of Midler’s kinetic staying power and stage presence; bringing the writhing/cheering audiences to their knees with one incredible musical performance after another; the arc of this concert repertoire beginning with two roof-rattling behemoths; ‘Whose Side are You On’ and ‘Midnight in Memphis’, before effortlessly segueing into the rock/pop standard, ‘When A Man Loves a Woman’ and then, blowing apart Gene Pistelli’s prophetic and foreshadowing, ‘Sold My Soul to Rock n’ Roll’ with all the brutalizing precision of a skilled machine-gunning sniper. Midler, whose vocal range is, frankly, limited, nevertheless, manages to convey the sheer energy and fortitude necessary to sell these songs as earthy and earnest odes to a childhood her Mary Rose probably has never experienced.
If would make sense too, the runaway from an unsatisfactory home life, growing up dirt poor and/or abused; except, Rydell gives us glimpses into Rose’s past; her parents (Doris Roberts and Sandy Ward) a pair of nondescripts from the milquetoast middle-class, eager to embrace the return of their beloved daughter, come to Florida for a concert gig, but denied an actual face-to-face reunion. Instead, Rydell gives us one of the most heartrending cries for help ever put on the screen; Rose, drunk and despondent, returning to the empty bleachers of her old high school where, so it is suggested, she either was raped or indulged in a semi-lucid/semi-consensual, drug-induced orgy with the senior football team; locking herself in a nearby phone booth and feigning happiness for the benefit of her mother and father, while preparing to take the drug overdose that will ultimately put a period to her life and career.
It is a moment of epic pathos, Midler’s ability to convey the lie so convincingly in her trembling voice, even as we are witness to the monumental agony in those careworn eyes. The Rose is uncharacteristically revealing throughout and almost from its prologue as a mildly inebriated Rose exits her private jet, stumbling and clutching a bottle of cheap wine destined to smash against the tarmac. By all accounts, here is a pathetic creature whose inner resolve is already severely depleted. And yet, her first appearance, a half-crooked smile barely emerging from beneath her general bewilderment, elicits a very sly grin from manager, Rudge, who is waiting with a limo nearby. Perhaps he instinctively knows there is still a little left to squeeze out of Rose for another round of bookings. We cut to a penthouse apartment high above the city of Manhattan with Central Park looming majestically in the background. Rose and Rudge lock horns; presumably, not for the first (and certainly not the last) time. Rose desperately wants to take a year off – the kiss of death, signaling an end to most any performer’s career.
Rudge, of course, will not allow Rose to entertain the notion for even more obvious reasons; because it will impact his cash flow. He reminds Rose of her contractual obligations. But she points to the fact she has not stopped working in over two years; that her private life has become a drunken blur of one night play dates and cheap hotel rooms, and her prospects for falling in love with someone who genuinely loves her are practically nonexistent. Rudge responds with his own manipulative slate of reasons why removing herself from the spotlight at the height of her popularity for twelve months will ruin the ‘good thing’ they have both striven so hard to secure. He reminds Rose of her unflattering past; a strung out junkie with little unvarnished talent when they met. It was he who pulled Rose from the gutter and trained her to become the powerhouse singer presently adored by millions. He is responsible for molding her style and generating her success. It can all be taken away from Rose too, and then, where will she be?
Fear and self-loathing persist and Rose, lamentably, trudges onward, pouring every last ounce of herself into her music; the fans lapping it up wherever she performs. After one such exhaustive venue, Rudge hurries Rose into a helicopter for a rendezvous with country/western singer, Billy Ray (Harry Dean Stanton); whose original covers she has performed at several of her sold out concerts. Rudge has wheedled Rose into accepting this invite under the false pretense Billy Ray is as enamored with her as she has been with him for so many years. Alas, Ray is cruel in his admonishment of Rose; telling her he would appreciate it if she immediately ceased performing ‘his’ music because she lacks a thorough understanding of what his lyrics mean. Furthermore, he considers her little more than a crass and commercialized pop tart with little staying power and even less class; just a flash in the pan who has bastardized his music to further her own career.
Rose is wounded, storming out on Rudge and ordering a nearby limo driver, Huston Dyer (Frederic Forrest) to drive her anywhere. She hurls wads of rolled up bills at Huston to convince him to accept her demand. He acquiesces, partly for the money, but moreover, because he immediately recognizes her as ‘the Rose’ and, being a fan, feels obliged to accommodate her. However, it does not take Huston long to recognize Rose is in trouble and emotionally distraught. After all, he’s just a good ole boy from Texas, transplanted to the wilds of Manhattan; Rose’s predicament appealing to his chivalrous side. She finds his company comforting, electing to go on an all-night prowl that culminates in their crashing a drag club near the meat-packing district; presumably, a venue Rose played when she was on her way up the artistic food chain. The drag artists surround and embrace her, encouraging Rose to accompany them on the stage; the audience going wild and Huston thoroughly enjoying himself. Afterward, Huston and Rose wind up in her bed at the Ritz; Rose completely forgetting she was supposed to be at the recording studio at the break of dawn to cut a new record.
Upon her very late arrival at the studio, Rose discovers only Rudge waiting for her inside. He is fuming and admonishes Rose for her inability to grasp the importance of punctuality and commitments. Rudge and Huston get into a verbal skirmish and Rose tells Huston off. He storms off, but Rose pursues him into an all-male Turkish bathhouse. She is arrested and taken to the police station; Rudge arriving to bail her out. He is enraged, but recognizes something in Rose has changed because of Huston. Yes, Huston just might be the right man to ‘handle’ Rose’s love life, taking the onus off Rudge. So, Huston becomes part of the band’s entourage. He confides in Rose he is AWOL from the army and in constant fear of being sent back. While their plane is fogged in at the airport, Rose picks up another military man, Pfc. Mal (David Keith), whom she has Rudge hire as her personal bodyguard. On board Rose’s private jet bound for their next concert, Rudge confides in Huston he will now be expected to manage Rose; to see she is kept ‘satisfied’ in her private affairs; thus, encouraged to tow the line professionally. At present, Rose is stirred by the soft guitar vamping of one of her band members; warbling a few lyrics to accompany the melody before bursting into tears. Her life is out of control and she is a mess. Managing ‘the Rose’ will not be an easy endeavor.
Huston discovers just how rough the road ahead will likely be when he is introduced to Sarah Willingham (Sandra McCabe); Rose’s waspish ex-lesbian lover. Previously, Rose had confided to Huston how she was ‘taken advantage’ of by her high school football team. For Huston, the past matters not an iota. Sarah, however, is another matter entirely; particularly when she reappears in their hotel room and attempts to seduce Rose at one of her most vulnerable moments. Huston leaves Rose in a huff and Rudge seizes upon this opportunity to plunge his star into a breakneck series of concert dates to culminate with a ‘homecoming’ concert in her native Florida. Rose is reluctant to go home. After all, she left Florida under an ambiguous cloud of regrets; also, to escape her middle-class upbringing. While preparing for the ‘homecoming’ concert, Rose informs Rudge this will be her last performance as she has finally decided to take a year off. In reply, Rudge pulls the plug on the concert planned for that very evening, saying to Rose if he cannot manage her career he has absolutely no quam about destroying it right now. He fires Rose on the spot and casually struts off toward his trailer. It is, of course, a bluff; Rudge knowing damn well Rose will not throw away her life’s work even to regain her own freedom.
However, in chasing after Rudge, Rose is inadvertently reunited with Huston who confesses he simply could not stay away. He offers Rose a chance to escape her grueling artist’s life for good; suggesting they take off to Mexico and live off her earnings until a decision can be made about the next step in their lives together. It all sounds wonderful to Rose; except that along the highway to freedom she elects to have Huston stop at an old honkytonk where she first started singing for money. The bartender, Sam (James Keane) immediately recognizes her and celebrates her return with a round of drinks on the house. Rose’s old drug supplier (Harry Northup) offers her some premium quality pills for old time’s sake. And although Rose informs him she no longer is an addict, she nevertheless accepts the pills. Alas, Milledge (John Dennis Johnson), one of the football players who took advantage of Rose long ago, is also present, shouting crude insults at her, causing Huston’s blind chivalry to spring into action. A fist fight ensues and Rose accuses Huston of ruining everything. Huston has had quite enough. He leaves Rose and the car at the honkytonk, thumbing a ride with a trucker to parts unknown.
Untethered from the last possible man who might have helped her ease into a more quiet and normal life, Rose waffles; driving to her old high school and parking near the bleachers. She telephones her parents; in hindsight, a sad goodbye that neither grasps as such; then, swallows a handful of pills before telephoning Rudge to come and get her. Unaware she has taken the narcotics, Rudge ushers Rose to the stage, pushing her into the spotlight for the last time. She performs at full octane the riveting, ‘Stay With Me’ – a plea for sanity in an impossibly insane world not entirely of her own design. The crowd is electrified. But only moments later, Rose, tear-stained and fading fast, stumbles back from the microphone, declaring ‘Where is everybody?’ before suddenly collapsing. We regress to the movie’s prologue; Rose’s parents, along with a reporter and Mal, entering the private shrine of photographic memories they have made in their suburban garage, dedicated to their beloved Rose.  
The Rose is a blistering and unrefined masterpiece; chiefly, in typifying the senselessness and lunacy of a rock star’s behind-the-scenes lifestyle. For nearly a century, the mask of stardom has made the layman aware only of its glamor; the mythology to its perfect and glittering lifestyle utterly exposed as fraudulent by director, Mark Rydell and his star, Bette Midler.  The Rose comes much closer to the truth; the self-inflicted cruelties meant as ‘coping mechanisms’ to justify the increasing spiral out of control; the illusion of a private life destroyed at the expense of a cold and unrelenting public scrutiny that demands so much from its deified celebrities.  And Midler is unabashedly unafraid to illustrate the perils of this self-imploding existence; to shock us with her trademarked tenuous balance of vulgarity and vulnerability. At once, she breathes passion and instills in us empathy for this otherwise potty-mouthed and filthy harridan. We begin by recognizing Midler’s talent – formidable and omnipotent – from the moment Rose first appears on the screen – but by the end of the picture we have transferred our affections to the character’s plight; Midler having become ‘the Rose’.
By all accounts, The Rose was Mark Rydell’s gift to Midler’s career; a once in a lifetime opportunity for which Midler has remained exceedingly grateful. On set, she clashed with co-star, Harry Dean Stanton, whom she found aloof and intimidating, but otherwise was mildly in awe of the assemblage of talent Rydell had gathered for this film; particularly, Alan Bates. Midler would later acknowledge, “he inspired me to rise to his level of authority and expertise.” Midler also got on famously with Frederic Forrest, whom 2oth Century-Fox exec’s had first been very reluctant to cast because of his relative obscurity. Rydell’s clout in the industry eventually won out – especially since Fox had little faith in the movie anyway and, as such, afforded it a fairly meager budget of $8,500,000. As luck and good fortune would have it, The Rose would go on to gross $29,200,000 in the U.S. alone.  
Viewed today, The Rose is quite the anomaly. Erroneously billed as a ‘musical’, the picture is actually far more faithful to the ‘docu-tainment’ a la Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970);  Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography aspiring to a faux documentarian flavor. The concert sequences are all harshly lit by megawatts of stage light and grittily photographed by Zsigmond who, with Rydell’s complicity, also brought in the formidable talents of Conrad L. Hall, Jan Kiesser, László Kovács, Steve Lydecker and Michael D. Margulies; each of them considered true artists behind the camera. As Rydell would later point out, he needed to bottle the electric charge of a real concert; simultaneously photographing the action from different angles rather than pausing for additional set ups for which time and his budget would not allow. The extras were culled from real people who had come to hear an actual concert and Midler performed the numbers live as seen in the movie.
At one point, Rydell instructed the audience not to cheer Midler out of necessity (in other words, to make the scene look good) but rather, only if she performed to their satisfaction; thereby further promoting an unvarnished verisimilitude. In the final analysis, the gamble paid off. While possessing transparently obvious elements dedicated to her alter ego, Janis Joplin, Midler’s performance as ‘the Rose’ is tinged in realities from her own live theater experiences. When she screams into her microphone, it is with the ripened comprehension of a particular ilk of performer, circa the 1970’s; a real hellcat and barn burner, capable of setting a crowd on fire with the only tangible asset at her disposal – her voice. There’s an aliveness to these moments that belies the fact we are watching a work of fiction instead of a chronical from life. Midler makes ‘the Rose’ live and Rydell gives her a pantheon in which to stir and haunt us from our seats. It really is an extraordinary accomplishment; and one long overdue for renewed consideration and respect.       
Criterion’s Blu-ray debut of The Rose comes with Vilmos Zsigmond’s signature approval. Alas, I am not entirely certain this is the best the movie could have looked in hi-def. The Rose was never meant to have high gloss surface sheen. This new 4K image is decidedly thick and heavy. My issues with the transfer are not exactly criticizing the look of the movie so much as the somewhat inconsistency of said grain from scene to scene. The concert venue sequences are the most impressive; exhibiting fully saturated colors – an overpowering array of hot pinks, burnt oranges and reds, azure blues and sunflower yellows. Herein, the grain is very pleasingly rendered; present and heavy, though never obtrusive to the action taking place. The rest of the movie’s visuals are, frankly, all over the place. Background information breaks apart during the dimly lit sequence in the bath house.
A few of the sequences, like the pseudo-seduction of Rose by her former lesbian flame, and the bar fight at the honkytonk, have so much grain at play it seems mildly muddy to wholly distracting to the visuals. How much of this is the result of Zsigmond photographing under less than optimal lighting conditions is debatable. There’s little doubt the 2oth Century-Fox logo that opens the picture is a gritty, ugly mess. Did it look this bad in 1979? Hmmmm. Minor fluctuations are present too. But I will presume these were indigenous to the original cinematography. Overall stability will surely impress, as will the obvious cleanup of age-related dirt, debris and scratches. Better still, Fox has afforded Criterion a brand new DTS 5.1 audio with phenomenal separation, depth and clarity. The movie sounds light years fresher and sonically vibrant than its thirty plus years. The extras are decidedly thin on this Criterion release; but still very much in keeping with this indie label’s ability to cull virtually all pertinent materials together for a comprehensive retrospective. We get the same audio commentary track that was available on Fox’s old DVD, plus new interviews with Midler, Rydell and Zsigmond; also, archival interviews with Midler discussing the film with Gene Shalit. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, May 21, 2015

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS: Blu-ray (Columbia 1966) Twilight Time

“Many a man in his great pain and sickness, by calling upon God, is marvelously made whole.”
-        Sir Thomas More (1534)
For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul in the process? A question asked and answered in Fred Zinnemann’s magnificent cinema stagecraft, A Man For All Seasons (1966); a taut character and case study in defense of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), an English nobleman/lawyer who defied his sovereign liege, only to pay the supreme price for his integrity. Stories about an unscrupulous aristocracy had proven all the rage with English audiences. Indeed, in American films too, and for some time, tales of palace intrigues continued to fascinate and enthrall. There is a distinction to be made, however. Whilst British audiences likely considered such treks into antiquity an extension of their own natural history, the chief allure for American audiences likely stemmed from the foreignness of this cultural heritage. Before it was an Academy Award-winning motion picture, A Man For All Seasons began life as a radio play, written by noted scenarist, Robert Bolt and produced for the BBC. It was later adapted as a one hour live performance for television in the U.K. Ultimately, it was Bolt’s success with The Flowering Cherry that convinced him to rework A Man For All Seasons for the stage, although likely even he could not have imagined how universally successful it would become. Critically and commercially, the stage incarnation became a smash on both sides of the Atlantic. And yet, Hollywood expressed little interest to produce it as a major motion picture.
The plot is essentially based on the historical record regarding Sir Thomas More, a 16th-century Chancellor of England who refused to annul King Henry VIII's (Robert Shaw) marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon. Cate cannot bear Henry a son. The fault, so time and history have proven, was Henry’s, as further attempts to propagate the royal bloodline with mistresses, Anne Boleyn (Vanessa Redgrave) and her elder sister, produced no viable male successor to the throne. More is a man of principle, simultaneously envied and despised by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Orson Welles) and Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern). It stands to reason – More cannot be bought off or swayed in his opinions. He exercises the offices of his royal appointment with absolute sincerity. More is the King’s greatest ally and his most trusted advisor…if only Henry would reconsider his devotion as such; also, his own ambivalence toward More, greatly colored by his lust for Anne. Heavy is the head that wears the crown? Hardly. Henry is crude, devilish and quite incapable of sincerity. But he can recognize More’s quandary, even if he emphatically refuses to accept his decision on the matter.
On stage, Robert Bolt had employed the device of a central narrator to provide a link between events and add historical context to the story; tertiary characters such as the boatman, town cleric, king’s messenger, and, jailer; at intervals, each interrupting the story with their social critique, all of them inevitably played by the same actor. Director, Fred Zinnemann had much admired and sincerely hoped to retain this device for his film; coaxed out of this decision by Bolt, who gingerly suggested the requirements of film greatly differed from those acceptable in a live theater. Zinnemann would eventually concur. Bolt’s ability to revise, rework and pare down his lengthy prose into a manageable, and, even more ingenious and taut screenplay cannot be overestimated. If anything, the cinematic incarnation of A Man for All Seasons is a more richly satisfying and herculean entertainment because of Bolt’s daringly telescopic focus, jettisoning both the play’s subplot involving Queen Catherine of Aragon, as well as purging virtually all the historical context and back story. The best parts in the movie are its heated exchanges between Scofield’s moralizing More and King Henry VIII; England’s caustic liege and accidental monarch, played with a deliciously psychotic streak by the virile and deviously handsome, Robert Shaw.  Alas, Shaw’s later career would be hamstrung and colored by this brilliant performance, typecast as slightly unhinged bullies in films like The Sting (1973) and Jaws (1975), perhaps, because in life, Shaw exhibited similar characteristics that would eventually brand him as unmanageable and undesirable to work with; his inevitable decline and fall prematurely ended with his unexpected death from a heart attack at the meager age of fifty-one.
At its crux, A Man for All Seasons is a wordy discussion on the sanctity of religious freedoms, on the separation of church and state, and of one man’s political defiance of autocratic authority.  Thomas More was, in essence, a finely wrought English gentleman, influenced by a clear-eyed study and sense of the law; also, inspired toward the betterment of all peoples via his appreciations for art, theology, literature and the humanities of the Italian Renaissance.  Scofield’s More is the very embodiment of this complex and contrasting individual, gutsily refusing to take the Oath of Succession and sacrificing himself for Christianity as well as his fervent and undying beliefs in the Catholic faith. Among his many other attributes, More was a superb writer, committing his thoughts to 22 volumes, nine of his most prolific written during the last four years of his life. In one of his earliest explorations, More weighs the pros and cons of a state ruled by a monarch as opposed to one governed by a senate; siding with the senate every time, but equally espousing the obviousness of England’s history to be governed by a royal dynasty.
In 1516, More would write his most clairvoyant and enduring masterwork, Utopia; a novel about an ideal society that can never be, though nevertheless should clearly be the template and aspiration for a modern civilized world. In this book, More contrasts and compares his own humanist beliefs with the imperishable religiosity of Roman Catholicism; siding with rational beliefs while pointing to their utter futility without a religious framework to protect and guide the course of human evolution. In this, More’s perspective was, perhaps, not unlike the younger Henry VIII; hardly the squinty-eyed and heavy set despot depicted in Hans Holbein’s immortal painting, but the young and impassioned - if unlikely – heir to the throne, who desired virtue, glory and immortality above monetary riches. It is one of history’s great accidents Henry became England’s ruler after the death of his elder brother, King Arthur; married to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon via a dispensation from the Pope – God’s emissary on earth. Indeed, the granting of such a dispensation for a marriage made strictly as a matter of state, seemed to fly in the face of a Biblical precedent; Leviticus 18:16 which states “thou shall not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife; it is thy brother’s nakedness.”
In defense of having his marriage annulled, Henry would employ this passage as proof positive God had damned him by denying the couple the right to conceive a child. More however, held tight to the rigidity of his own Catholic beliefs: that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was valid; that the predecessor to the current Pope had given his dispensation with God’s complicity and blessing, and as such, it could not be reversed by any earthly means. Incensed, Henry drew More nearer to his bosom and court, appointing him his Lord Chancellor under the false assumption More would suffer a change of heart – or at least, of mind – and side with him so he could pursue and eventually marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. More likely accepted this position expecting his staunch influence would eventually wear down and convince Henry to relinquish his passion for Anne and return to Catherine. Neither man was to be satisfied by this appointment and More, after several uncomfortable years at court, ultimately resigned his post; vowing to honor his king in ‘other matters’ while remaining steadfastly opposed to even the notion for an annulment.
Alas, More chose a quiet life in theory only; his contempt of Henry’s decision to seize power over the Church of England, thus creating a break with Rome, revealed in his philosophical literary works, particularly 1533’s The Apology which does not directly address Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, though nevertheless is fairly subversive and even more transparent in illustrating the obligations of fidelity to a previous union sanctified by God. More’s final work, ‘Dialogue on Conflict Against Tribulation’ goes one step further, pointing to the purpose of kings: to strive for the betterment of all people, rather than simply exist for their own dynastic pleasures and pursuits. The ‘quiet life’ would not remain as such for very long; Henry, prompted by an investigation put forth by the enterprising Thomas Cromwell (superbly realized in the film by Leo McKern), the results culminating in allegations of sedition, forcing Henry’s hand and leading to More’s imprisonment in the Tower of London and subsequent beheading. In his final address to the court before being sentenced to death, More offers a final and very sobering chastisement; explaining that in his silence he had remained the king’s good servant – though, God’s first. To answer the charges would have meant death to his soul; to abstain from any comment now, the likely and anticipated death of his body. So be it.     
Remarkably, both Robert Bolt’s play and his screenplay remain faithful to the particulars of this sordid history, reconstituted as eloquent drama by Bolt’s illustrious way with a wit and words. Yet, in hindsight, both the play and the movie’s greatest asset can be summarized in one commodity: Paul Scofield.  Indeed, Scofield’s ability to slip into character, tapping the inner soul with complete absence of personal ego, absorbed and transformed as a chameleon into this man of the hour, is peerless from beginning to end. When Scofield speaks, his words resonate not merely as expertly crafted dialogue delivered via a finely wrought grammarian, but with a sinewy and fibrous devotion to the man himself…or perhaps, as he might have been. From the moment he steps in front of the camera, Scofield, whose own physicality is decidedly distinct, nevertheless ceases to exist. His interpretation becomes the character, possessing him completely.  Scofield’s More is unaffectedly a man of personal convictions, a monastic civil servant played with resplendent restraint. It remains a performance largely held together by Scofield’s dynamic vocal inflections. He is the stationary presence in the film, the camera poised to capture even the subtlest nuance of which there are many to collectively summarize the whole of the man. 
Scofield plays More as the Reformation martyr, torn between a life of civil service and his own thwarted monastic calling; surrounded by enemies, including Thomas Cromwell and the enterprising, Richard Rich (John Hurt); an awkwardly ambitious youth, encouraged by More to pursue a teaching career, though easily swayed and manipulated by Cromwell’s promises and the allure of a life at court, enough to bring down and destroy More’s reputation. In the dead of night, More is summoned to Hampton Court by Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles); plagued by the King to agree to a reversal of his marital dispensation. Wolsey is acutely aware of the church’s stance on divorce, pursuing More’s support to bolster his own waning resolve. He also realizes the consequences for denying a royal command. Regrettably, More will not lend his name to this decision. Eavesdropping on their conversation, Cromwell is mildly amused and perhaps even pleased. A rift in the court of Henry VIII has already begun; the peoples’ affections for the monarchy waning. Later, and rather ruthlessly, Cromwell will blackmail Rich to defame More’s credibility and reputation, forcing the king to declare More’s actions treasonous, thus turning popular opinion against him too.
At home, More’s has more prescient issues to resolve. His uneducated wife, Alice (Wendy Hiller) is staunchly supportive of his morality, though equally bitter over the prospect of losing her station in life simply to prove her husband’s point of logic. More’s daughter, Margaret (Susannah York) is entertaining amorous overtures from a seditionist suitor, William Roper (Corin Redgrave). To complicate matters further, More will not allow Margaret to marry unless William pledges his allegiances to the Crown and respects his wishes as Margaret’s father and the ‘right hand’ of the throne of England – something Roper emphatically refuses to do. Meanwhile, the Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport) is devoted to More, and equally contemptuous of Cromwell’s ability to inveigle the court in these unflattering intrigues. The King favors More’s household with a visit; the entire family agog at the prospect. Herein, cinematographer, Ted Moore captures the essence of Henry VIII’s larger-than-life persona; emerging from the backlit shadow of the sun like a great pagan god; his golden royal robes glittering, his leggings muddied from traipsing up the embankment to More’s Tudor estate. In reality, the sea and house were located several hundred miles apart; director, Zinnemann unable to find a suitable estate nearer the water’s edge. The muddy leggings are, of course, a metaphor for Henry’s flawed desire to remarry; his inability to convince More to side with him. Henry has already ‘stepped in it’ as it were, and destined to sink into the mire brought about by his terrible lust for Anne.
Publicly, the King smiles, is gracious toward Alice and flirtatious with Margaret. But afterward he challenges More to reconsider his decision; is demonstratively put off when More resists both his bombast and his argument, and impetuously storms off in a huff and back to court to contemplate his next line of recourse without ever having entered More’s home to indulge in the feast prepared in his honor. Wolsey dies; Norfolk retrieving his chancellor’s chain of state and, under the King’s orders, make More the next Lord Chancellor of the realm. At precisely this same instance Cromwell springs into action, appealing to Rich’s greed and exploiting it to suit his own dark purpose. The impressionable lad is out of his element and easily duped. Charges are brought against More who is first placed under house arrest, then later imprisoned in the Tower of London. Eventually, Cromwell brings the gravest charges of treason to light. Bound strictly by the canons of the law, More is sentenced to death.
However, More plainly reminds the court that whilst he practiced law it was customary to inquire if the condemned had any final words to speak. Reluctantly, the judges grant this request and More seals his own fate with an eloquent oration; explaining how Henry’s oath of Succession is an anathema not only to the Holy Church – and by extension, Christ’s teachings – but also a direct conflict of interest to Henry’s own Coronation oath in which he vowed to remain the custodian of God’s law and maintain the separation of church and state. More cites the Magna Carta and the church’s right to be free, illustrating for the court that having thus anointed himself the temporal head of the church, Henry has defied his promise, broken with centuries of tradition, but most importantly, defiled God’s law.  While all he says is undeniably true, it is not enough to spare him. Sir Thomas More is beheaded, but not before he declares with a twinge of embittered sadness, “I die his Majesty’s good servant…but God’s first!”  
A Man for All Seasons is a conflict of identity vs. conscience; More repeatedly illuminating a man’s character is defined by his conscience. Nowhere is this more plainly illustrated than in the scene between More and Norfolk, the latter imploring More to side with him and the other prominent figures at court who have already signed Henry’s Succession to the Crown Act. Frustrated by his own clumsy inability to convince More of his pro forma argument, Norfolk appeals to More on the basis of their enduring friendship, saying “Can't you do what I did, and come with us, for fellowship?” to which More critically replies, “And when we stand before God, and you are sent to Paradise for doing according to your conscience, and I am damned for not doing according to mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”
The other thematic thread running through both the play and the movie demonstrates Robert Bolt’s anti-authoritarianism. Apart from Sir Thomas More, virtually every prominent figure at court, (King Henry, Cromwell, Wolsey, et al) is depicted as perversely fraudulent, self-serving and power-mad. Bolt antes up his impressions of absolute power as a corrosive influence, in the character of young master Rich who is easily brought to ruin by his own avarice. Early in the film, More is presented with a silver chalice as an obvious bribe by a mysterious lady who advises he is “doing more good” than he knows. Mildly surprised by the ‘gift’, More later tosses it into the lake, frantically retrieved by his boatman (Thomas Heathcote) and given to Rich by More with the understanding it was meant to influence his decision on a case set before the courts. More studies Rich’s reaction; recognizing in it a fundamental weakness for the finer things in life, only attainable if Rich is willing to sell himself short and barter away his reputation for a few sovereign pieces of gold. It is a moment fraught with Bolt’s brilliant sense of foreshadowing for the tragic outcome between mentor and student. As Rich, denied any sort of encouragement or even a modest recommendation by More to ascend to a desirable life at court, eventually sides with Cromwell to bypass and expedite his future prospects.   
Finally, there is Bolt’s obdurate case in support of the rule of law, eloquently played in a scene very near the end between More and his future son-in-law, Roper, who urges for the arrest of Richard Rich on the grounds of perjury. However, More suggests Rich has broken no law. Under the law, all are eligible for due process – even the devil. Appalled by the insinuation the devil should be entitled to the same considerations as an innocent man, More astutely explains, “…and what would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil? ... And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper; the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast. Man's laws, not God’s, and if you cut them down – and you're just the man to do it – do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.”
It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that the picture executives at Columbia initially thought no one would want to see became the sleeper hit of the season and the runaway Oscar-winner; nominated for eight, and winning in six of the most prestigious categories:  Best Costume Design - Elizabeth Haffenden, Joan Bridge; Best Cinematography – Ted Moore; Best adapted screenplay – Robert Bolt; Best Director – Fred Zinnemann; Best Actor – Paul Scofield, and finally, Best Picture. Kismet seems to have favored the production from the start. Zinnemman was devoted to Bolt’s play and quickly jumped at the chance to direct the movie. Alas, even with such a heavy hitter at its helm, Zinnemann had great difficulty convincing the powers at Columbia to finance the picture. In the changing climate of sixties cinema, the director was repeatedly told “nobody wants to see a costume picture with very little action, void of violence, sex or even a basic love story.” Ironically, Columbia’s reticence allowed Zinnemann to cast Scofield in the title role; a decision initially balked at, despite the fact Scofield had made the part his own in London and on Broadway. Columbia would have preferred Richard Burton, while no less an actor than Charlton Heston had aggressively lobbied for consideration. As Columbia was not banking much on the movie’s success, and had severely pared down its budget, Zinnemann could scarcely afford to cast his picture with brand name, high-priced ‘stars’; thus ensuring greater fidelity to the original stage show’s success.
Most of A Man for All Seasons was shot on location; the production fudging the exterior of Hampton Court with a cardboard and plywood façade expertly lit and photographed by Ted Moore to convey size and scope; the largest set constructed - the courtroom - lavishly appointed with stadium seating and stained glass windows.  For a pivotal sequence in which Norfolk rides through heavy fog and snow to retrieve Wolsey’s Chancellor’s chain, even Mother Nature complied with Zinnemann’s request. The scene called for snow-covered ground. Alas, production had commenced in mid-April; usually well past the possibility for snowfall. Zinnemman had thus arranged for trucks to dump Styrofoam on the chosen location; startled, however, when the skies suddenly turned dark and clouded over, a heavy snow begun to fall. By morning, Zinnemann had exactly the landscape he had desired to recreate, quickly assembling his cast and crew for the shoot. A few hours later, the sun came out and the snow was gone. Critics of the day positively raved about the movie. Today, A Man for All Seasons remains a monumental achievement, as compelling and as eloquent; in every sense, extraordinary and satisfying. How many pictures made in the last thirty years can hold a similar claim?
Sony Home Entertainment lacks faith to debut A Man for All Seasons on Blu-ray via their own label as a mainstream release. Instead, this classy and riveting high-stakes drama has gone the ‘limited edition’ route via Twilight Time; forgivable (and even preferred) given we now have the movie looking nearly immaculate with Georges Delerue’s exemplary score isolated in stereo on an alternate track for our listening pleasure. I’ll begin by saying the image quality herein is thick and heavy on grain, as it presumably should be, although I confess, I found the opening ‘Columbia Pictures’ credit slightly blurry and looking fairly careworn and muddy in its color and contrast. That brief exception aside, what’s here is magnificently realized. Previous editions of A Man for All Seasons on DVD have suffered from severely bumped contrast levels, usually employed to artificially brighten the image. Again, Ted Moore’s original cinematography is primarily lit either by natural sunlight during the day or by reserved key lighting augmenting the natural flicker of candlelight or glow off a roaring hearth. This 1080p image re-invigorates the sumptuous ‘darkness’ of that original endeavor.
Moore’s efforts are best viewed in a completely darkened room. Fine detail is never wanting and color saturation is first rate. Flesh tones are particularly satisfying whereas on previous DVD’s they were quite often a very unhealthy and pasty pink. A brief word about the grain structure: while looking indigenous to its source, I am not altogether convinced by its thickness. At times, I found it slightly distracting. Also, there are minute traces of age-related debris (a very minor quibble). The remastered 5.1 audio is impressive. A Man for All Seasons is primarily a dialogue-driven movie. The real benefactor is Delerue’s score, reproduced with exacting clarity. As already mentioned, Twilight Time adds an isolate score option that improves considerably upon the sonic resonance of the music, heard without its integrated dialogue and effects.  Finally, we get a spectacular audio commentary featuring Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and film historian, Lem Dobbs. Twilight Time also carries over a featurette Sony produced for its SE DVD reissue, basically concentrating on the real Thomas Moore with expert commentary provided by prominent historians. Bottom line: definitely worth the price of admission and very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

LIMELIGHT: Blu-ray (UA 1952) Criterion

He was a monument of the cinema, of all countries and all times ... the most beautiful gift the cinema made to us.”
Rene Claire
Charlie Chaplin bid a poetic farewell to his alter ego, the little tramp, in Limelight (1952); the lyrical tale of a fading comedian, Calvero, who befriends a paralytic ballerina on the brink of suicide. He instills in her the will to get better and pursue her dreams; she rekindles a benevolent spark of youthful aspiration in him.  Limelight is more than a poignant love story, thematically touching upon the elemental grand tragedy of the careworn ‘star is born’ showbiz ilk. It is Chaplin’s sad adieu to the Vaudevillian paradiso he knew in the late twenties when his career was just beginning and the American cinema had first learned to embrace his genius. Alas, by 1950, Chaplin was persona non grata – and not just in Hollywood; like Calvero, a legend seemingly past his prime. In hindsight, Limelight is the apogee to Chaplin’s sound pictures; a compendium of bittersweet emotions and overt sentimentality (for which Chaplin was justly famous and quite oft’ taken to task by the critics); a picture in which the peerless master, now sufficiently aged to have seen not only something of the glories of life but also its unvarnished ugliness, affects his performance with a very mature outlook, able to regard the tenuous balance between life’s triumphs and tragedies with clear-eyed precision.
Limelight ought to have marked the pinnacle of Chaplin’s success in American talkies, except that the picture was pulled from the more prominent theaters and all but disappeared from public exhibition in America. For Chaplin had enjoyed his autonomy as a creative genius far too long to suit a moral/conservative contingent in the U.S. government; had thumbed his nose by dabbling in political themes with an arguably, naïve and subversive empathy, and, had had the audacity to marry and divorce three times while continuing to procure an enviable family lineage – five of his children appearing in Limelight, along with his half-brother, Wheeler Dryden.  To be certain, Limelight is entirely void of any political themes; an almost autobiographical homage, fraught with a curiously monochromatic, yet painterly style and tenderness for a way of life, sadly forgotten. Chaplin had toiled for nearly three years on the story, composing a sumptuous orchestral score to augment this lovingly hand-crafted portrait.          
Owing to the growing animosity he had incurred in the United States, Chaplin elected to hold Limelight’s world premiere in his native England. It seems this decision, and Chaplin’s to refuse taking U.S. citizenship during his lengthy tenure in Hollywood, brought about a tragic standoff with Attorney Gen. James P. McGranery, who seized upon the opportunity to revoke Chaplin’s re-entry permit into the U.S., and furthermore, declared that if Chaplin dared return he would be subject to a thorough investigation concerning his political views and moral behavior. Chaplin had, in fact, hinted he would not be returning to the U.S. anyway. But now, McGranery’s public chastisement made it virtually impossible for Chaplin to take his lumps in private. Ensconced in a new home in Switzerland, Chaplin issued his own declaration: “I have been the object of lies and vicious propaganda by powerful reactionary groups who, by their influence and with the aid of America’s yellow press, have created an unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals can be singled out and persecuted. I find it virtually impossible to continue my motion picture work, and I have therefore given up my residence in the United States.”
Publicly, Chaplin remained austere and introspective about the way things had turned out. Only those closest to him knew the extent to which this embargo had wounded his pride. For Chaplin, who had given so much and so freely of himself to this great nation – particularly in its darkest hours during the Great Depression and later, WWII, was now vilified as one its’ worst enemies. He would never again work in the U.S. Indeed, this rift endured, so that when, in 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences elected to bestow upon Chaplin an honorary Oscar for his ‘incalculable effect in making motion pictures the art form of this century’, the U.S. State Department begrudgingly issued a forty-eight hour pass for Chaplin to fly in and collect his award. Those old enough to recall this televised moment, for which Chaplin received nearly twelve minutes of uninterrupted applause and a standing ovation from his peers, regard it as one of the sublime triumphs in the great artist’s career. Limelight, alas, was not to be discovered by American audiences until nearly twenty years after its release; the boycott against Chaplin and the movie relaxing with the more laissez faire changing times.   
Limelight is, in many ways, a departure for Chaplin; his broadly delineated slapstick taking the proverbial backseat to a more restrained and intelligent melodrama. Like all of Chaplin’s masterworks, Limelight maintains his impeccable tempo for comic potential; the film’s focus on developing its characters. There are several ‘skits’ interspersed throughout the narrative; Calvero’s act with a fellow thespian (played by ole stone face himself, Buster Keaton) to sweeten the audience’s anticipation for Chaplin in his prime. But now, the tramp’s quirky mannerisms give way to a more serious demeanor and the solemnity of the backstory as Calvero’s ‘friendship’ with Terry grows more paternal and then - even more unlikely - romantic. In Chaplin’s silent classics, his little tramp was frequently the recipient of unwanted humiliation from a very hostile world. Herein, the focus shifts slightly to Terry, gingerly coaxed from her reoccurring bouts of crippling depression by the gentle man, inevitably, no stranger to hard knocks.  What is absent from Limelight is Chaplin’s induction of laughter through tears. In fact, almost exclusively he keeps the two emotions separated or exclusive to particular sequences in the movie. The tenderness with which he eases Terry from out of her shell and into the ‘limelight’ is marked by tragedy – a main staple of Chaplin’s modus operandi; Calvero succumbing to a heart attack, knowing he has passed the baton of performance to a new generation, surely to embrace it with all the love and passion he once knew and felt as an artist.
Perhaps in Terry, Chaplin’s aged clown sees something of his former self; sympathetic to the underdog eager to triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds. Limelight’s aegis is, to be sure, Chaplin’s tribute to the greasepaint and gaslight era of his parents. Like all his movies, the narrative is only superficially strung together by a series of dramatized vignettes interpolated with comedic skits; Chaplin’s unobtrusive cinema style never allowing the camera to ‘intrude’ on these moments. Rather, it remains the silent observer with an omnipotent and quiet admiration, expertly communicated to and lingering with the audience long after the footlights have come up. Uncharacteristic of Chaplin, the drama in Limelight satisfactorily outweighs the comedy. Arguably, the picture is far more the byproduct of a ‘mature’ statesman of life and less the exemplar of that spirited creative zeitgeist who gave us The Gold Rush, The Great Dictator and Modern Times.
Even so, Chaplin’s interests in the mise en scene are solely comprised of the camera’s ability to keep him ever-present in the lens. Interestingly too, Chaplin’s usual knack for improvisation seems to be lacking in Limelight; one sensing he is adhering closely to his own script without exploring other avenues along the way. If anything, this leads to a decided lack of spontaneity. But his evocation of the Edwardian music hall era remains secondary to his characterizations, another hallmark of his classic film-making style; his total absorption in the content of the drama at the expense of a more naturalistic visual appeal. Viewed today, Limelight’s artifice appeals even with these unconvincing and obvious cardboard and plywood backdrops.  There’s nothing particularly authentic about Chaplin’s London, but something quite genuine about the people who populate its transparent little world where the afterglow of limelight is as transient and perishable as the petals off a blooming flower.
There is little to deny Limelight as Chaplin’s most self-conscious and deeply personal movie; set in the beloved and idealized London of his youth, circa 1914, on the eve of World War I; his aged has been, Calvero (Charles Chaplin), stumbling up the stoop to his rental property after yet another night of drowning his sorrows in booze. The movie’s prolong, delineates limelight as the glamor from which age must pass and youth enters. But in these opening scenes the scenario is slightly reversed as Calvero,  smelling a whiff of gas from the hall, bravely breaks down the door leading to the apartment of a young dancer, Thereza ‘Terry’ Ambrose (Claire Bloom) who has attempted suicide. This rescue intervention by Calvero and Terry’s doctor (Wheeler Dryden) is unwelcomed by Terry at first. She inquires, “Why didn’t you let me die?” to which Calvero astutely rebuts, “What’s your hurry? Billions of years it’s taken to evolve human consciousness and you want to wipe it out…wipe out the miracle of human existence – more important than anything in the universe!” These early moments in what will ultimately become a poignant relationship, are tinged with Chaplin’s own modesty, his congenial self-deprecating charm, playing mildly intoxicated, and yet with more than a sincere thread of contempt for Terry’s inability to grasp the life lesson he is trying to impart. Nevertheless, Calvero is gentle and self-sacrificing; giving up his bed and setting up a birth nearby to keep vigilante as she sleeps.
Herein, we cut away to the first of Chaplin’s ‘skits’ – Calvero’s glorious reign as a supreme comedian on the Vaudeville circuit; commanding an invisible flea circus. The audience is reminded of Chaplin in his prime, the inclusion of sound hardly necessary as Chaplin emotes with great sustained brilliance the follies of being ringmaster to these miniscule performers, unseen by anyone but his own perversely serious clown. Back at Calvero’s apartment, the old campaigner decides to get to know his young charge better. She tells him her parental lineage – the product of an earl and a kitchen maid; her only living relative, a sister, Louise, who became a streetwalker in London to pay for Terry’s dance lessons, then departed in shame to South America. Calvero inquires what made Terry attempt suicide and she confesses, in addition to her prolonged illness, it was the utter futility of life; the endless drudge, seemingly without meaning. “What do you want meaning for?” Calvero astutely replies, “Life is a desire, not a meaning.” Later, he further imparts that when all hope escapes one may choose to live without it and simply thrive in the moment. These are not flimsy platitudes. For life has not been easy for Calvero either. But he knows intuitively of what he speaks, referring to the mind as the greatest ‘toy’ ever devised and suggesting from it the root of all imagination and thus – happiness – can be derived.
We slip in and out of more vignettes from Calvero’s glory days; the best, a sublime pas deux between a vagabond and a lady. Calvero confides in Terry that as he grew older he became more introspective and therefore less capable of seeing the absurdity in the follies of life; a lethal maturity for a comedian. He lost contact with his audience and took to drink to console himself.  An appointment at the agent, John Redfern’s (Barry Bernard) offices leaves Calvero hopeful. Alas, Redfern quickly explains he had finagled a booking at the Middlesex Theater – a middling venue where Calvero is not even to get star billing. Redfern makes it clear Calvero’s is an anathema to the theater’s management. They have agreed to sign him, but only as a huge favor to Redfern, who has been talking him up for many weeks and, unlike Calvero, has maintained enough of a cache in the business to persuade, despite their reservations. Returning to his apartment, Calvero learns from the doctor that Terry’s paralysis is psychosomatic. Physically, there is nothing wrong with her legs. So, Calvero attempts to break Terry of her imaginary illness; his pop-psychiatry explaining to her it is human nature to despise ourselves.  
Herein, Chaplin shifts the focus of the narrative to a flashback told by Terry; her first fleeting glimpse of romance with a shy American composer, Neville (Sydney Chaplin) whom she mildly worshiped from afar; nightly, stalking his flat to listen through the door to his compositions and deliberately favoring his purchases of sheet music at her store with extras or returning to him unnecessary change. Terry’s boss eventually catches on to her infatuation and discharges her for stealing from the till. She briefly returns to her first love – dancing – but succumbs to rheumatic fever. Five months after her recovery, Terry sees her young love again at the Albert Hall. Calvero wisely assesses that although the two have barely met, she is desperately in love with this young man. Calvero paints a rather prosaic picture of how Terry’s romance will end; with a flourish of violins, hearts and flowers – a glorious summer romance over flickering candlelight, with the city dreamily backlit for their enduring affair. Mrs. Alsop (Majorie Bennett) urges Calvero to pay up his rent, also to get rid of Terry from his apartment to avoid rumors, suggesting there is something spurious about the relationship between this ingénue and old man. Calvero responds with a playful romantic overture to Mrs. Alsop. She isn’t fooled for a moment, but is decidedly distracted; her heart somewhat softening, though not by much. 
Upstairs, Terry learns Calvero’s contract with the Middlesex has been terminated. With no money coming in to sustain them, Terry gets a job as a chorus girl in Mr. Bodalink’s (Norman Lloyd) Arabian nights’ fantasy musical revue. Her diligence earns her Bodalink’s respect. She finagles an audition for Calvero and Bodalink enthusiastically offers to help the old clown win back a modicum of his self-respect. The show’s backer, Mr. Postant (Nigel Bruce) is unimpressed, but the show is a great success. Better still, Terry is reunited with Neville who has been hired to compose the music for their new show. The two rekindle their platonic love. Terry, however, is torn in her allegiances. Calvero is wounded too, but only at the thought of losing the girl who has come to mean a great deal to him. However, he understands too well nature must pull in the inevitable direction of true love. Besides, it’s no good. Terry is young. She ought to be with her young man. Calvero tells her so after she suggests the two give up the theater and retire somewhere to a cottage or little farm in the country. Terry and Calvero come to a parting of the ways and Terry embarks on her own career.
The war intrudes and Neville enlists. Calvero takes up a job as a minstrel in a seedy little pub where he is reunited with Neville, who is on leave from the army. Shocked to find Calvero has sunken to this level, Mr. Postant suggests Calvero see him about a part in his new show. Calvero is, instead, cordially glib, refusing to even entertain the notion. But a short while later Terry inadvertently sees Calvero on his way back to work. She rushes to his side and encourages him to audition for Postant’s revue. Calvero is reunited with his old partner (Buster Keaton); the two preparing to revive one of their time-honored comedy routines. Terry confides in Postant she intends to marry Calvero, to make him happy and return to him the great favor and gift for living that he has bestowed upon her. Alas, this is not to be. For Calvero, having completed his act and brought down the house no less, suffers a fatal heart attack. He is carried to the wings of the theater as Terry takes to the stage. As she pirouettes magnificently about the proscenium, the doctor is summoned to Calvero’s side; pronouncing him dead with Neville, Postant and Bodalink mourning the loss, but Terry – as yet – unaware her beloved mentor and friend has gone.
In retrospect, Limelight is undoubtedly Chaplin’s last great work; perhaps not his greatest, yet undeniably his most personal and heartfelt: an extraordinary achievement for the old master, and at an age when most artists are winding down their careers. Chaplin had labored on the script for decades, going through rewrites and re-conceptualizations until he tweaked the particulars to his complete satisfaction. The picture was shot in just fifty-five days, a record for Chaplin who, in his prime, had been known to toil for months, improvising his performance as he went along, discarding scenes already shot, reshooting others, and still, working brand new ideas and routines into the project; all in his ceaseless effort to achieve the perfection in his mind’s eye. Alas, by 1950, such embellishments were impossible, even under the freedoms of his own studio; the skyrocketing cost of making movies putting a period to this sort of experimentation. Nevertheless, what Chaplin lacked in shooting schedule he made up for in his prep time; Limelight evolving in the back of his mind while he pursued and created other projects.
The picture is entirely shot in Hollywood, mostly at the Chaplin Studios, with exceptions made for the exterior street scenes, redressed sets already built at Paramount Studios, and the music hall sequences, filmed at RKO. To add authenticity to the exercise, Chaplin also used existing footage of actual London locations rear-projected. At the time, many critics assumed Calvero was Chaplin’s alter ego for his father who, like Chaplin’s fictional creation, had suffered a similar fate and turned to alcohol for solace. Interesting too, are the parallels between Chaplin himself and Calvero; both men’s professional careers in their twilight rather than their prime. However, a pair of biographies written by Chaplin suggests the character was loosely based on the life of stage actor, Frank Tierney.  
Limelight is, of course, historic for its pairing of Chaplin and Buster Keaton. During the silent era, these two had been the titans of comedy. In the interim, Keaton’s path had taken a different turn; the introduction of sound leading to his inevitable eclipse from the movies; infrequently resurfacing in bit parts – a very sad adieu to his reign as the comedic genius and silent star of the first magnitude. Chaplin had, at first, resisted casting Keaton, believing the role too small. However, upon learning Keaton had suffered financial hardships due to his disastrous divorce Chaplin adamantly insisted he be cast in Limelight. Furthermore, it appears the enduring rumors about Chaplin jealously hacking into Keaton’s performance to diminish its impact are little more than simply that: rumors begun by Keaton’s business partner, Raymond Rohauer.  As for Keaton, according to his widow, Eleanor, he was simply thrilled to be working with Chaplin, finding his contemporary congenial to a fault. Chaplin allowed Keaton to explore his performance at his leisure and experiment on the set. Chaplin, in fact, trimmed portions of his own performance to allow Keaton his moment in the spotlight.
Based on his own novella, Footlights, Limelight is likely a derivative of Chaplin’s personal reflections on his career. Yet, it is utterly void of any and all showbiz stereotypes and clichés, possessing a unique flavor and infectiously sincere quality. As a symbolic characterization, Calvero is Chaplin under siege; threatened by lawsuits and politicized witch hunts; the American premiere of Limelight picketed by those believing the rumors about Chaplin being a communist. How quickly the mighty had fallen. Only a decade earlier, Chaplin was regarded as one of the supreme entertainers of his time. Mercifully, time has not diminished Chaplin’s reputation. If anything, removed from all the hate-mongering, Chaplin’s resiliency, as well as that of his ‘little tramp’ have come around to be more perfectly ensconced as imperishable symbols of the American motion picture, despite changing times, tastes and virtues.
Limelight remains that wistful portrait painted in light by a genius whose command of his craft, his understanding of humanity and its fatal flaws, and his passion for both the theater and the art of making movies are peerless and impeccable. Clearly, Chaplin has drawn his inspiration from a purposeful life; bottling the essence of an aging artiste, young enough in his mind to recall the comedy of life, but as experienced by its pitfalls and tragedy. The tenuous balancing act Chaplin achieves between these polar opposites remains the film’s coup de grâce: an ingeniously interwoven tapestry.  Chaplin’s supreme virtuosity, as a philosophical student of life, ensures Limelight never becomes overly introspective or maudlin. When sentimentality is employed it is with the innate understanding nothing more is required of the moment than a good cry. And yet, the results never seem deliberate or out of place. For perhaps the only time in his career, Chaplin allows the drama of the piece to unfold around both his alter ego and his female star, the movie’s narrative structure creating concentric ripples from a central hub. Calvero’s final request, to have his couch carried into the wings of the theater where he can witness the fruits of his labors brought to full flourish – Terry’s balletic triumph – remain the hallmark of Chaplin’s own artistic creed. If there must be finality to all great endeavors, then let it come with a grace and dignity befitting the glorious wonders of living that life to its fullest.
Criterion’s new 4K Blu-ray is magnificent. Let’s be honest; the old Mk2/Warner release on DVD was an abomination; interlaced and riddled in edge effects that made the movie virtually unwatchable. Overall, the quality herein will not disappoint. The image has been stabilized and texture, grain and contrast all rank as superior over the aforementioned SD.  Fine detail in close-ups is startling. Grain is heavy but looking very indigenous to its source.  Clarity and depth is exceptional during brightly lit sequences and shadow definition is extremely solid, with nuanced blacks and grays. Criterion’s remastered LPCM mono audio will not stretch the breadth of your surround system, but it is more than competently rendered and supports the movie’s dialogue-driven narrative with renewed clarity. No hiss or pop. Chaplin’s score sounds sublime and is utterly free of distortion.
Criterion’s extras are formidable and most welcome; beginning with David Robinson’s formidable video essay: Chaplin’s Limelight – Its Evolution and Intimacy.  Here, at last is a fitting tribute to the movie as well as Chaplin’s penultimate act in showbiz. We also get new interviews with Claire Bloom and Norman Lloyd, each offering astute recollections of what it was like to be a part of this classic and share in Chaplin’s extraordinary gifts. Criterion has also graciously included Mk2’s 2002 featurette, ‘Chaplin Today: Limelight’ – a superficial summarization of the movie and its enduring appeal; plus two of Chaplin’s shorts: A Night in the Show (1915), and, the never completed The Professor (1919). The former has been lovingly restored by Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna and Lobster Films from a polyester fine grain preserved with miraculous results at The Museum of Modern Art and presented herein in full1080p with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. The latter is in very rough shape, exhibiting varying tonality and some horrendous age-related damage, presented herein in 1080i and mono. Finally, we get Chaplin reading excerpts from ‘Footlights’, some brief outtakes from Limelight, and two theatrical trailers. Criterion also includes a spectacular booklet with essays from Peter von Bagh and journalist, Henry Gris. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)