Wednesday, March 4, 2015

THE V.I.P.'S (MGM 1963) Warner Home Video

Rumored as one of the inspirations for television’s Dynasty (1981-89), Anthony Asquith's The V.I.P.’s (1963) was MGM's attempt to resurrect the big and splashy ensemble picture, long since a holdover from the days when they were the studio with ‘more stars than there are in heaven’ and movies like Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner At Eight 1933) epitomized a certain kind of residual elegance as effortless as glitter and spangles adorning Hollywood’s most glamorous leading ladies. Alas, Metro had not made lavishly appointed star-driven vehicles such as this since the late 1930s; the government consent decrees of the late 1940s and early 50s, forcing a divestiture of their top-heavy star system, thus making it virtually impossible to assemble a cast of A-list talent at a moment’s notice. Moreover, Hollywood was reeling over the skyrocketing costs to produce pictures – even mediocre ones. Worse, the industry suddenly found itself in the unenviable position of not being able to pigeonhole the public taste.
In the old days, MGM’s VP in charge of production, Irving G. Thalberg had consulted the crystal ball in his mind with remarkable clairvoyance, giving Metro its prestige with an uninterrupted string of megahits. Thalberg didn’t follow trends. He set them. For a time, after his untimely death in 1936, MGM continued to chug along under his steam and imprint; L.B. Mayer becoming the custodian of projects already begun or in the planning stages. But by the late 1940s, MGM seemed on the verge of a critical and financial derailment. Their profits and output had dwindled by half. Ominously, not a single major Academy Award was bestowed on a Metro picture in nearly three years. And Mayer, who had once vacillated as the undisputed raja of this, the plushest of Hollywood kingdoms, now seemed to be simply going through the motions, while diverting his time and energies to two hobbies – a new love and horse-racing – that had absolutely nothing to do with the studio’s wellbeing. By all accounts, the dream factory was gearing up for a very rude awakening.  
After the appointment of Dore Schary, MGM appeared to momentarily recover from its apoplexy. But like everything about Hollywood, its resurrection was a smoke and mirrors illusion; Schary creating a rift within the company to fester as star contracts were dropped, bought out or renewed only on a picture-by-picture basis; his own ennui with managing a glamor factory eventually lead to a severe downturn in Metro’s profits and his own deposal as captain of this ship already taking on far too much ballast to remain afloat for much longer. The circumstances of MGM’s final implosion were, by no means, unique. As television bit into badly needed revenue and stars foundered to find steady work elsewhere, Metro struggled to maintain its façade as ‘the king of features’. In this light it stood to reason – possibly even flying in the face of logic - that Anatole de Grunwald’s verve to produce The V.I.P’s as an all-star soap opera would return MGM to its heady prestige from days of yore. They might first have considered how the times had moved on, arguably, without them.
What the movie did offer, that no TV soap opera of its generation could, was the megawatt star power of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The V.I.P’s was to reap the whirlwind from the Burton/Taylor affair. Only months before, it had touched off a firestorm of controversy in Rome on the set of Cleopatra (1963). While both stars then were decried by the Pope and on the floor of the United States Senate as degenerates for the unapologetic way they had managed to wreck two marriages (one to America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds), enough to set up the gossip rags with enough steam to propel them for nearly a decade’s worth of printable scandal, this perverse excitement surrounding the couple had given Cleopatra an enormous boost in advanced ticket sales; the tidal wave threatening to swamp The V.I.P’s at the box office too. In our present age of star-laden publicity scandals it is perhaps a little difficult to assess just how potent the Taylor/Burton tittle-tattle was in 1963. Nothing quite like it had been experienced before. Certainly, without it, The V.I.P’s is just another fairly tepid yarn about a ‘marriage in crisis,’ offset with endearing and very solid cameo performances. And Terrance Rattigan’s screenplay is not particularly interesting in testing the boundaries of such rumormongering; merely whetting the public’s appetite for sin while remaining mostly ‘above it all’ and allowing the public to bask in the afterglow of stars who, arguably, had done their best work elsewhere.
In retrospect, Burton seems particularly bored with the part of wealthy industrialist, Paul Andros; something of a doting spouse whose manner in wooing his wife, Frances (Elizabeth Taylor) comes across as just a tad domineering and manipulative. He showers her with expensive jewels and furs and she gives him…hmmm. Not much of that going on in The V.I.P’s either. Instead, we get a fairly antiseptic romance between Mrs. Andros and Mark Champselle (played with oily charm by Louis Jourdan); a swarthy French gigolo, hopping from Riviera to Riviera via the next round of intercontinental poker games. Recently, however, these have threatened to push his playboy lifestyle into the red. So, Mark needs Frances – or at least Frances’ money – far more than evidently she needs him. He’s exciting, well sort of. Actually, not really. Jourdan gives us a thoroughly placid Lothario; more moony and dewy-eyed than anything else – and bordering on needy. Oh well, I suppose he appeals to Fran’s mother instinct. Actually, The V.I.P.’s is rather cagey about where Frances’ loyalties lay (pun intended) and this, in hindsight, is really part of the reason the picture doesn’t quite click as it should.
After writing Paul a letter of farewell she assumes he won’t be able to read until her plane is safely off the ground, Frances is in for an unwelcomed surprise when a dense fog grounds all flights, placing her grand amour with Mark in grave jeopardy. This is especially true when Paul, having read the letter back home, returns to the terminal to pursue Frances with promises he will reform. Exactly what about him Frances should like to improve, remains open for discussion. In hindsight, their marital issues are never explained or resolved, leaving Frances to appear even more misguided and silly. Paul’s first thought is to avenge his betrayal by shooting both Frances and her lover in a jealous rage. This might have steamed things up a little; Rattigan’s screenplay setting up the possibility in a conversation Mark and Frances share inside the V.I.P. lounge; he innocently inquiring why Frances should fear Paul; she coolly suggesting, “When I was a child I was always afraid of the dark.” But is Paul her boogie man? No, and neither is he the murderous kind.  After fumbling the gun scenario at the fifty yard line, Paul goes for Plan B: try and buy off Champselle. But money doesn't seem to be Mark’s motive either. So, onto Plan C. What is Plan C? Paul drowns his sorrows in drink. Good plan for a Welshman, since his woeful self-pity is grotesquely meant to squeeze empathy from a stone, and, in fact, softens Fran’s head and heart enough for her to realize she’s loved Paul all along…go figure.
If this ‘I don’t love you because I hate myself’ scenario seems more than a tad washed out – it is; leaving screenwriter, Terrance Rattigan to concoct even more sublimely nonsensical subplots with which to fatten the movie’s runtime.  These include the queer pairing of the physically robust, Rod Taylor with the decidedly peripatetic, Maggie Smith. He is Les Mangrum, president of a U.K. farm-equipment manufacturing company, eager to expand its operations into the United States, and desperate for an influx of capital from an American investor, only possible if he can get to New York for the annual stockholder’s meeting and make his pitch (shades of the old Preysing/Saxophonia deal that served up some ill will towards Wallace Beery’s character in 1932’s Grand Hotel). She is Miss Mead, Mangrum’s ever-devoted secretary, quietly smitten, though quite certain Mangrum is totally unaware she even exists outside their professional relationship. It’s true: Les is a lost cause – romantically speaking. And Mead isn’t exactly the glamor gal to fire up his square-jawed testosterone. But she loves him – desperately! Unfortunately, all appears to be lost when a key stock holder sells Les out. While Mangrum is hold up in his hotel suite with a ditzy blonde, Miss Mead digs in her heels – orchestrating a hostile corporate takeover by appealing to Paul Andros for a loan Mangrum can use to re-launch his company.
Also destined to find eternal dissatisfaction is foreign film-making impresario, Max Buda (Orson Welles), whose latest protégée, Gloria Gritti (Elsa Martinelli) is about as talented as a stick of kindling. Mercifully, she’s bumped out in all the right places and has enough of a brain to have sold her soul to this devil’s advocate for higher art. Pampered, but void of even the remotest possibility Max is only courting her for the way she fits neatly between his sheets, Gloria is no one’s idea of an actress. She’s only some people’s idea of a fool. Nor is Max the once prolific star-maker of yore; employing sycophant, Dr. Schwatzbacher (Martin Miller) merely to bolster his ego. To avoid paying international taxes, Max decides to take advantage of a loophole. This will inevitably backfire; putting virtually all his assets in Gloria’s name. Ultimately, Gloria uses her newfound power of attorney to her advantage. Exactly what this means for Max’s future as a conman is debatable. What it means for his love life is death.  
The last of the central cast is Margaret Rutherford, in her Oscar-winning role as the easily befuddled and bumbling Duchess of Brighton, reduced to selling tickets to her family estate, turned into a tourist attraction in her native England, thus staving off her inevitable eviction. Of all the aforementioned, Rutherford’s is the most animated performance; idiotic, though utterly charming as she packrats her way through Customs and Excise, makes a minor nuisance of herself wherever she goes, and is treated with the patience of Job and kid gloves by Sanders (Richard Wattis); the airport’s front man and over-accommodating host of the V.I.P lounge. There’s a lot of noise going on in Rattigan’s script, but most of it is submarined by the thoroughly leaden ‘marriage on the rocks’ scenario, obviously meant to mirror the presumed, rumored, and on occasion, well-documented volatility in the Burton/Taylor household.
Without the back story of this real life warring couple, The V.I.P’s has very little to recommend it. The aforementioned stars are generally wasted with a lot of melodramatic dumb show. Does anyone really care if Les Mangrum loses the company he’s built with his own two hands? If the Duchess never gets to see her extended family abroad is there a crisis brewing to threaten her familial dynasty back home? Will Miss Mead convince her boss she can be his kind of woman – any kind, in fact, that would suit his needs? What will become of Mark Champselle, deprived of the millions he might have pilfered from Frances, if only she hadn’t decided to go back to her husband? And Paul…well, knowing him as we presumably know Burton, any spousal betrayal would sound the death knell for love. Perhaps now he’ll be able to cheat on Frances for a while, or at the very least, make her feel incredibly guilty for misbehaving with so unworthy a man. Ho-hum, the beat goes on.  
Rattigan’s screenplay rather tepidly toys with the outcome of all these narrative threads. There’s never any doubt Frances will go back to Paul, chaste and repentant and completely apologetic for having misled Mark down the primrose path to her perfumed boudoir. And yet, when she elects to return to Paul, Mark isn’t even particularly wounded. He’s panged, but not terribly surprised. Even more curious; the relationship between Paul and Mark isn’t strained. Paul ought to be furious with Mark. He isn’t. There ought to have been a showdown, a fist fight, pistols at ten paces, something – anything – to explain what the future conflict between these two mismatched bucks will be, also, to liven up the deadly dull third act of our story. But this we never see. In fact, everyone seems to part amicably enough after all those unrepentant crocodile tears have been shed, then put away. Frances smashes a mirror in her hotel room and superficially cuts her wrist. Pity the poor drama queen – she’s grasping at straws.  And Paul comes to her aid with the understanding he’s been a negligent husband. Really? He apologizes for giving her everything in life she could possibly want?!?! What? How fickle is a woman’s heart? Apparently, very!
In some ways, The V.I.P’s may be viewed as a public apology made on behalf of Burton and Taylor for the way each had been (mis)represented in the tabloids; a means to smooth over all the negative fallout via their attractive, if loosely fictionalized alter egos; their megawatt celebrity the steamroller to make it all better in the public’s conservative estimation as per what constitutes propriety, decorum and fidelity in a modern marriage.  Not that Taylor ever figured this one out for herself; divorcing Burton in 1974, before remarrying him again the following year; then, continuing to run through more hubbies with renewed dissatisfaction and as much – if not more - disregard for the way any of it would be viewed by the pundits who found her ongoing personal unhappiness rather disgustingly amusing. Good copy, that Liz Taylor. Print that!
The V.I.P’s may not be a perfect entertainment. At times, I would argue it isn’t even a competently made one. But it does possess all the trappings of a ‘Taylor-made’ melodrama; an imposing main title by Miklós Rózsa, and, Jack Hildyard’s deep focus cinematography, capable of cozying up the rather impersonal and bustling airport terminal and its coveted V.I.P. lounge, enough to make each the chichi proving ground where these elite meet. Hats off to designer, Hubert de Givenchy for Liz’s stunning creations, and to Pierre Cardin, who had everyone else covered in his stunning array of immaculately tailored suits and furs. If nothing else, The V.I.P’s provides the opportunity to ogle stars as they out to be; in all their finery and at a time when the perfection of such specimens was readily being called into question. Anatole de Grunwald produced it on a shoestring, but with the bombast and chutzpah that always translated into at least the look of money. Perception is, after all, nine tenths of the law in make-believe.  The plot may be a dog, but The V.I.P’s still manages to put on a pretty good pony show for the masses. Evidently, audiences agreed. On a $4,000,000 budget, the picture grossed $10,205,626 in the U.S. alone, and another $14,000,000 worldwide. All aboard, indeed!
Warner Home Video’s DVD is adequate, though just that. Colors tend to be muddy and inconsistently balanced, favoring a red/blue palette with very warm flesh tones that occasionally veer into ‘piggy pink’. The anamorphic image is generally crisp, although infrequently we get black levels that threaten to obliterate finer detail in long shot. Age-related artefacts are present but not terribly distracting and mostly tempered for an overall smooth visual presentation. Overall, this is an unremarkable rendering of an equally unimpressive movie. The audio is mono as originally recorded. It works, but won’t give your speakers any sort of workout either. There are no extras. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

BEST FOOT FORWARD (MGM 1943) Warner Home Video

Before becoming TV’s devilish madcap, Lucille Ball was an auburn-haired glamor girl, dubbed Technicolor Tessie; more famous for her gams, gloss and sex appeal in A-list musicals and B-budgeted noir thrillers than for her comedic timing. This would be later mined for its untapped richness on everybody’s favorite sitcom, I Love Lucy (1951-57). That this sultry/savvy screen persona was lost in translation from movie to television screen is indeed a shame, since Ball could dish the dirt with the best of them, and often portrayed a hard-knock, clear-eyed sex bomb better than most. In the shadow of I Love Lucy, it occasionally takes a moment or two to warm to the ‘other’ Lucille Ball; the evolution made more palpable in Edward Buzell’s Best Foot Forward (1943); a rambunctious college musical, casting Lucy as herself – or rather, a variation on the public image as concocted by MGM. In hindsight, Best Foot Forward is Ball in transition; given the full glamor treatment, immaculately quaffed and sheathed in some of Irene Sharaff’s most elegant gowns. Lucy’s yen for razor-sharp comedy shines through however. But it’s her impeccable timing that caps off some fairly bitter barbs, elevated each to good clean humor, even if the sentiment behind them could incinerate. Yet, Lucy isn’t the star of our show.
That honor belongs to Tommy Dix, the unlikely pint-sized baritone powerhouse, imported for the film by producer, Arthur Freed (along with a sizable chunk of the Broadway cast). Extraordinarily gifted, Dix’s reputation, unjustly, has been allowed to fade into obscurity for far too long. At the age of twelve, he already possessed the singing pipes of a full grown man thrice his age. He became a regular on a religious radio program eventually built around his formidable talent that aired in New York throughout the 1930s. As luck would have it, the network was owned by Loew’s, the parent company of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Dix, who had begun his career as Bobby Brittain, scored a minor coup in Broadway’s The Corn is Green (1940), while quietly trying out for George Abbott’s new musical, Best Foot Forward (1941); a light-hearted, revue-styled show about a Pennsylvania boy’s prep school. Broadway folklore has it the show was shaping up to be a dud until the curtain rose on the second act and Dix opened his mouth to belt out the school’s fight song, ‘Buckle Down Winsocki’. In good ole fashion terms, he stopped the show.  
As the Broadway run neared its end, Arthur Freed, who generally made two trips to New York per annum scouting new properties, caught a matinee performance. He was immediately enchanted. At $150,000, Freed outbid Columbia Studio president, Harry Cohn for the rights to produce it. For that money, he also acquired the services of songwriters, Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, actors Gil Stratton (who had actually played the male lead on Broadway), June Allyson, Nancy Walker, Kenny Bowers, Tommy Dix and, an as yet unknown quantity; contract dancer, Stanley Donen who, by the late 1940s would prove his worth as Gene Kelly’s mainstay choreographer/collaborator, and eventually, would go on to become one of the industry’s most respected directors.  Donen is barely glimpsed in several of Best Foot Forward’s lavishly appointed production numbers, hoisting June Allyson up by the ankles for ‘Wish I May, Wish I Might’ and accompanying Allyson again in the spritely and athletic Barrel Hop segment from ‘The Three B’s’. Freed padded out the cast with some homegrown talent: Virginia Weidler – all grown up, as the long-suffering, gawky love interest, Helen Schlesinger; Chill Wills, as the thoroughly obtuse photog, Chester Short; William Gaxton, Ball’s misguided press agent, Jack O’Riley, and finally, Harry James and His Music Makers to jazz up the Martin/Blane megahits.
Best Foot Forward continues to resonate with fresh-faced innocence, meticulously mapped out by Arthur Freed, employing his usual gift for assembling top tier talent behind the scenes. The show is given all the gloss and gigantism Metro usually afforded its musicals, tricked out in sumptuous 3-strip Technicolor, slickly rewritten by scenarists, Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe to iron out some of the stage’s minor narrative kinks. The boy’s prep school – Winsocki - was remade as a military academy preparing young men for West Point; timely fluff, considering there was a war on. From the outset, Freed’s faith in the project was unabated, enough to convince L.B. Mayer to green-light Best Foot Forward in color (always expensive). To illustrate this point, of the 289 features produced in Hollywood in 1943, only ten were photographed in Technicolor, four for MGM alone. As it turned out, Freed made a fortuitous decision early on when he elected to star Tommy Dix. On Broadway, Dix had played second fiddle to Gil Stratton. Ultimately, Stratton would not appear in the movie at all. Although he arrived with the rest of the company as per Freed’s lock, stock and barrel purchase of the show, Stratton would instead be spirited away in support of Mickey Rooney in another Freed musical simultaneously shooting, Girl Crazy (also made in 1943), after original costar, Ray MacDonald was drafted into the army.
L.B. Mayer loved musicals almost as much as Arthur Freed, primarily because they fit his idea of wholesome ‘family’ entertainment. Moreover, he implicitly trusted Freed’s judgment and impeccable good taste. And Best Foot Forward did not disappoint on that score, even if the film was out-grossed at the box office by the aforementioned Girl Crazy. In retrospect, Best Foot Forward remains one of the studio’s most magical offspring with an academic theme; the entire production shot on soundstages and the back lot. The central location would take full advantage of the Williamsburg-styled ‘Girl’s Dormitory’ set, subbing in for Winsocki, but originally built for 1940’s Forty Little Mothers at a respectable cost of $10,000.
One of the most extraordinary aspects about Best Foot Forward is the longevity of its cast. Many went on to have very lucrative careers. June Allyson, as example, became Metro’s most popular musical sweetheart throughout the 1940s and 50s, attaining the height of her screen popularity a few years later, opposite Peter Lawford in another college-bound musical, Good News (1949). Originally told her voice would never record, Allyson was informed her ‘laryngitis’ could be fixed by MGM’s resident doctor. Overhearing the conversation, heartthrob, Van Johnson is rumored to have replied, “Oh no, boys. That’s a million dollar case of laryngitis!” Like Allyson, Gloria DeHaven and Nancy Walker received studio contracts, memorably featured, usually as campy seductress and comic relief respectively. Kenny Bowers, whose distinct upturned nose and ragamuffin charm made him a beloved, almost elfin-like personality as Dutch Miller, infrequently made movies thereafter, turning his attentions instead to a singing and stage career. In Best Foot Forward however, he is, quite simply, the most joyous of comic foils for Tommy Dix and Lucille Ball.
The film crackles with rapid fire delivery of witty dialogue. An ongoing gag about Helen – whose last name no one can seem to recall at a moment’s notice, is invariably referred to as ‘Miss Slassenger’, ‘Smack-in-puss’, and ‘Schlesin-heimer’ is cute without ever becoming strained. The repartee between cadets, Bud Hooper (Dix) and his roommates, Dutch Miller and Hunk Hoyt (Jack Jordan) is genial and competitive; the threesome vying for time with Lucille Ball on the dance floor at their senior prom; the even bigger gag – no one at the prom seems to realize who she is until her dress is torn off in the climactic catfight of fans struggling to own a souvenir. “Miss Ball, you really send me,” Hunk suggests, “Only I’m too smart to go.” A short while later, Bud inadvertently adds insult to injury when he suggests, “It’s not their fault they didn’t recognize you with your clothes on.”
The premise behind Best Foot Forward is simplistic to a fault; a college-bound cadet writes a famous movie star a mash letter, inviting her to be his date at the senior prom. No self-respecting glamor queen would think to reply. Except that Lucy’s last few pictures haven’t exactly been smash hits, and in a last ditch effort to resurrect for sagging career, her agent, Jack O’Riley has misguidedly accepted Bud’s invitation on his client’s behalf, hiring ‘one-bulb’ Chester Short to capture the tabloid-worthy stunt for posterity. Almost immediately, things go awry; Chester pitching a screenplay he has written to Lucy and Jack, reenacting its pivotal love scene by taking her in his arms and declaring, “Oh, my darling. You are the quintessence of feminine loveliness. I long to gaze into your sapphire eyes and sip from your ruby lips the sweet nectar of the gods…” before tossing her aside to inquire from O’Riley, “Have you got an aspirin? This scene always gets me!”
Meanwhile, Bud is in a dilemma. He’s received a telegram from O’Riley, reportedly touting Lucy’s overwhelming enthusiasm to be his date for the prom. However, at the same instance, Bud learns his mainstay, Helen Schlesinger, is arriving on the noonday bus; having received a letter from Bud, claiming he is ill with the grip, and come to nurse him back to health. Hunk and Dutch promise to keep Helen at bay. But what they are really planning is a three-way split of Lucy’s time on the dance floor, with the more prominent portions going to themselves. Helen quickly figures out the ruse. She’s no fool, though very much the jealous type. The situation is complicated too by arrival of Hunk and Dutch’s dates; Minerva (Gloria Grahame) and Ethel (June Allyson). The pair has arrived with their school’s chaperone, Miss Talbert (Sarah Haden). Also on the bus is Nancy (Nancy Walker); a butchy wallflower with precious little opportunity to land herself an escort for the prom. Eventually, she settles for ‘Killer’ (Darwood ‘Waldo’ Kaye); Ethel objectionably declaring, “But he’s thirteen” to which Nancy replies, “By eighteen he’ll get used to me.”
In hindsight, Walker is given a very plum comedic role in the picture. Her one-liners are all self-deprecating zingers. When Minerva suggests ‘beauty is only skin deep, Nancy comes back with “Maybe I should get skinned.” When Miss Talbert sternly observes, “Do you think it very ladylike to be dropping handkerchiefs in front of the stag line?”, Nancy glibly swats back with piss elegance, “No…that’s why I use Kleenex!” Walker is also given a plum solo in ‘The Three B’s’ and her own specialty number, ‘Alive n’ Kickin’ – in which she attempts to woo band leader, Harry James with a buck n’ wing, but winds up toppling over and smashing his big bass drum. The mileage she gets from these moments is impressive, yet, oddly enough, never entirely distracts from the central narrative, despite the fact she has very little – if anything – to do with it.
But back to Bud and Lucy, and particularly, Helen, who is so shocked, wounded and disappointed in Bud she vows to never speak to him again. Lucy would like to help, but actually she has bigger fish to fry. Ushered around the dance floor by her trio of escorts, her presence is eventually exposed to the graduating class (both figuratively and literally) when Helen – in a last ditch effort to prove her love for Bud – confronts him and Lucy on the dance floor during The Ring Waltz, preceded by the eloquent prom ballad, ‘My First Promise’, sung to perfection by Beverly Tyler. Revealing Lucy to be the interloper, Helen tears at her dress, declaring, “Look, I’ve got a souvenir!” This incites a riot, the graduating class ripping Lucy’s ball gown to shreds and leaving her in her petticoats. A short while later, Bud is contemplating his future; confronted by Hunk and Dutch who inevitably drag Ethel, Nancy and Minerva into his dormitory bedroom. Big no-no, here. No coed rooms at Winsocki, you see. In a scene directly ripped from the Marx Bros. classic, A Night At The Opera (1932), the modest room begins to fill with all manner of students, attempting to hide out from Winsocki’s formidable disciplinarian, Capt. Bradd (Donald McBride). In the penultimate reveal, Bradd winds up locked in the closet with Nancy, who escapes detection by covering her head with James’ punctured bass drum.
The next day, Bud apologizes to Lucy in her hotel suite. She’s empathetic. After all, Bud’s a good kid. She asks if everything has been squared away at Winsocki and Bud lies to her to keep the peace. Lucy sends him off with a song; another poignant Martin/Blane ballad, ‘You’re Lucky’ (her vocals dubbed by Gloria Grafton). But only moments later, Lucy and Jack learn from Helen, who has been hiding in the wings, Bud will not be graduating. It seems Capt. Bradd is holding him personally responsible for the disgraceful display at the prom. Taking matters into her own hands, Lucy confronts Bradd, also his superior officer, Major Reeber (Henry O’Neill). Smoothing the situation, by pretending the entire incident was deliberately staged by she and Mr. O’Riley, purely as a publicity stunt, Lucy ingratiates herself to both men, who easily become enamored of her beauty. They agree to allow Bud to graduate. Everyone rushes off to observe the commencement exercises; Bud closing the show with a rousing reprise of the stage’s megahit, ‘Buckle Down Winsocki’.   
On the surface, Best Foot Forward seems so effortlessly charming and unassumingly good-natured it’s easy to forget the well-oiled Metro machinery hard at work behind the scenes to pull together this extraordinarily effervescent entertainment. All the pistons are firing as only MGM in its heyday could manage. Yes, we’ve all seen these sets before; the whole picture concocted to take full advantage of the studio’s formidable free-standing assets. The gymnasium, as example, would be used over and over again in films like A Date With Judy (1948) and Good News (1949); the campus, a veritable mainstay for any picture set in academia; Bathing Beauty (1944), Cynthia (1947), The Cobweb (1955) and Tea and Sympathy (1956) among them.  It is a hallmark from this period, all MGM movies have a consistent look of quality about them; the grounds impeccably manicured, the extras and stars set before them afforded no less consideration. Lenny Hayton’s orchestrations augment the Martin/Blane score with tenderness and bombast when and where propriety demands.  Leonard Smith’s cinematography reveals a varied, bright and breezy richness in glorious Technicolor.
It all looks utterly gorgeous, radiating equally portions of luminosity and cleanliness for which Metro was justly well known and regarded. The musical truly lost its most ardent in-house stylist when MGM ceased its operations in the mid-1970s; arguably, even early with the enforced disbanding of its galvanic star system in the late 1950s. At a final cost of $1,125,502, the picture’s gross of $2,704,000 – while putting its receipts in the black – was a tad disappointing, considering Girl Crazy (shot more efficiently in B&W, and, on a similar budget of $1,410,850) made a tidy profit of $3,771,000.  In retrospect, Best Foot Forward is a painful reminder of that creative loss in Hollywood; also, a fond daydream remembered from a more innocent time in picture-making when chic good taste and pictorial quality prevailed above all else. It’s a memorable romp too, and a joyous spree, delicately balanced and moving with considerable agility through Metro’s storied past. In 1974, in praise of the theatrical release of the musical anthology film, That’s Entertainment!, Variety had suggested “while many may ponder the future of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, certainly no one can deny it’s had one hell of a past!” Best Foot Forward is a glorious addendum to this historical record.  It’s bouncy, plush and tune-filled sure fire box office dynamite.  “Buckle down, Winsocki, buckle down!”
Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer of this engaging musical is reason enough to stand up and cheer, although I would suggest it’s about time the studio came around to remastering Best Foot Forward for a Blu-ray release via the Warner Archive. Until then, what we have here is a near pristine image harvest from original 3-strip Technicolor negatives that bely the source material is well over 60 years old. Colors are beautifully rendered. Reds are blood red. Whites are vibrant. Lucy’s henna hair simply glows off the screen. Harry James’ powder-puff tux and navy blue ensemble of his Music Makers are strikingly rendered. Flesh tones are bang on perfect. Contrast is exceptional with rich, solid black levels. Fine detail is exemplarily reproduced.
Of note: there is one very brief instance, as Lucy first meets Bud in her hotel room, where the image suddenly becomes inexplicably soft and several glaring age-related artifacts come into view. But this brief instance is hardly worth quibbling over. The audio has been remixed to stereo and is very well represented, particularly the musical sequences. Only three brief short subjects accompany the main feature, none actually directly related to it – a genuine shame – but one easily overlooked, considering what treasures are on tap herein. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, March 2, 2015

THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (Paramount 1952) Paramount Home Video

“A man is no better than what he leaves behind.” – Cecil B. DeMille
If this is the case, then Cecil B. DeMille’s legacy is likely to remain a monument to our cinema culture for all time. Without question, he was a resplendent showman who ushered in the 20th century’s greatest form a mass media, helped proliferate its iconography and endear it to several generations of movie goers – future film-makers and starry-eyed daydreamers alike – and one of the few undisputed giants in an industry dominated by such larger-than-life names.  As a storyteller, DeMille’s philosophies were quaintly ‘out of fashion’ even in his own time. But his particular brand of corn was never insincere, his pomp never telescopically focused on the thumping of his own chest. His precision on the screen remains peerless and spellbinding. Yet, at the heart of DeMille’s film-making philosophy there exists an intimate vision as formidably enriching as it continues to proliferate the globe as irrefutable populist entertainment. 
Only DeMille, it seems, could give us a circus, bigger and more alluring on the screen than an opening night thrill of being under the actual big top via Barnum and Bailey. And only DeMille had grasped the art of making movies to call out such spectacle within a series of intimately concocted stories, buffered by a glittering all-star cast. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) is quite simply that – and, a whole lot more. By 1950, DeMille could have rested easy knowing he had helped shape this artistry with millions; also, that his legacy as a picture maker had made him one of the most easily identifiable figures in the industry; in fact, the epitome of everyone’s idea of what a film director ought to be. Better still, especially since DeMille wanted to continue making movies, his sixty-eight feature films to date had grossed more than $600 million in 1950 dollars (or roughly $12 billion by today’s inflated standards), selling 1.66 billion tickets in the continental U.S. alone and another 1.44 billion worldwide. But (and with very few exceptions) DeMille’s reputation had been built on historical and Bible-based screen spectacles. Thus, when he pitched the idea for a wholly contemporary story with a circus motif, even Paramount’s executive brain trust was left scratching their heads. They wanted more of the same from him. Had the old master flipped his nut?
Few knew just how dear the idea of a big top adventure was to DeMille. Based on Courtney Ryley-Cooper’s 1923 novel, Under The Big Top, DeMille had carried something of the sawdust, spangles and dreams of a carney with him into those burgeoning Hollywood hills in an era even before that name had become synonymous with glamour, glitz and movie stars. Ironically, it was a rival interest from David O. Selznick that prompted DeMille to further pursue his lifelong dream to make The Greatest Show on Earth. Selznick had endeavored to do just such a picture, using Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey as his backdrop. Then president, John Ringling North wanted fifty percent profit sharing to seal this deal; too rich for Selznick’s blood. He balked and DeMille stepped into the negotiations, employing his wit and wiles to gain Ringling North’s trust; his fifty percent profit-sharing willingly granted only after the movie had twice recouped its negative cost. For this, DeMille was virtually handed over control of the big top, allowed to go on tour with the show for three months and film anything and everywhere his heart desired. Carte blanche had rarely been afforded any film director on location. Then again, Cecil B. DeMille was not just any director.
Only one thing worried DeMille: shooting on location. Like all showman of a certain vintage, DeMille felt most at home within the comfort and confines of his beloved Paramount Studios. Not only did it offer him absolute creative control, but also the immediate facilities necessary to make any sort of miracle on his ‘things to do’ roster come to life at a moment’s notice. Location work, with its unanticipated weather conditions, its fluctuating light sources and its inevitable configuration of unexpected delays, to say nothing of preparing his own caravan of bulky camera equipment, cast and crew dressing rooms and other paraphernalia, to be carted all across the country, set up and repeatedly torn down just like the circus itself, meant more time and money necessary to bring the whole enterprise together on time and under budget. DeMille’s anxiety was marginally quelled by his new alliance with Technicolor and the promise of a more light-sensitive film stock being developed to capture all the richness of his own magniloquence. DeMille’s initial template for constructing the action had been Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932); a film he held in very high esteem. Alas, its framework proved unworkable within the copious research already gathered during nearly three months of lumping it with the circus on tour. $113,000 later, DeMille had distilled his research into a manageable three hour movie. It dawned on the executive brain trust at Paramount the old master was indeed gearing up for another epic – one set in the present. 
“How fickle is a career?” Charlton Heston would later muse, for he had not been DeMille’s first choice to star in The Greatest Show On Earth. DeMille would have preferred Kirk Douglas, his asking price of $150,000 too steep to consider. DeMille had already cast Cornel Wilde over Burt Lancaster for the part of the egotistical aerialist, The Great Sebastian when Henry Wilcoxin – a life-long part of DeMille’s professional entourage – suggested he screen some footage of Charlton Heston for the pivotal role. DeMille ran several pictures and though Chuck too dour to play the part of circus manager, Brad Braden. No, it just wouldn’t work. But then came the moment of good fortune destined to impact and forever alter both men’s careers; Heston unassumingly driving past DeMille on the backlot with his trademark toothy grin, a dome of thick hair blowing majestically from the open top of his convertible as he casually waved and called out “Hello, C.B.!” Reportedly, DeMille turned to his secretary, Berenice Mosk to inquire who the young Lochinvar was. “I like the way he waved just now,” DeMille admitted, “Let’s get him in for a chat.”
The rest of the cast came to the project without much delay. After getting James Stewart for a song – the star practically pleading to make the picture at half salary – DeMille settled on Betty Hutton as Holly, the lovesick trapeze artist. A few years earlier, DeMille had pegged Hutton for stardom if only she could restrain her gregarious lung power long enough to turn in a performance. Indeed, Hutton’s early career had wielded the sort of uncontrollable and frenetic energy that made her a curious cross between a female Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman. Save a promising star turn in Annie Get Your Gun (1950) the rest of her film career had been relatively inconsequential. DeMille found Hutton’s energy exhausting. But he could certainly recognize her talent. Asked if she would do the film ‘his way’, Hutton’s absolute acquiescence to this simple request, also her confession she had been practicing the trapeze in anticipation of getting the part, gave DeMille confidence he had found the right star to play this pivotal part.
Now, only the part of Angel, the elephant tamer remained. It ought to have gone to Lucille Ball. Instead it went to Gloria Grahame. DeMille was hardly please. He had diligently labored to have Ball cast, particularly since she had just pulled something of a fast one by slinking out of her Columbia Studios contract without paying for the privilege. DeMille had all but secured Ball’s participation on The Greatest Show on Earth when she unexpectedly arrived at his office one sunny afternoon with Desi Arnaz on her arm to inform DeMille she was pregnant. As Ball had suffered several miscarriages in the past, she was determined this time to carry the baby to full term. An extended film shoot was decidedly out of the question as was delaying principle photography for nine months. DeMille, who quickly discovered even he lacked the powers of persuasion to woo his star back from the brink of her decision, instead allowed Ball to exit his office happily, but pulling Desi aside, he sternly muttered, “Congratulations…you’re the only man in history to screw Lucille Ball, Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Harry Cohn and Cecil B. DeMille all at the same time!”
Even before principle photography began, The Greatest Show on Earth broke new ground. Told it was impossible to effectively light the big top for Technicolor’s requirements, DeMille ordered an entirely new system of lighting to be devised and controlled by remote control, its cluster formations capably diffusing and spreading light throughout the vast and cavernous tented interiors. The picture was shot during the circus’ down time, primarily on its camp grounds in Saratoga, Florida; a vast playground DeMille would later describe as ‘a world in miniature’; a ‘stream of civilization’ and a sort of ‘United Nations on parade’. He embraced it with every fiber of his irascible being. Back at Paramount, DeMille had already shot key dramatic scenes on soundstages, some between Charlton Heston and Betty Hutton; also Cornel Wilde during the aftermath of the climactic train wreck meant to cap off the movie. Midway through this early preparation, DeMille also gave a detailed interview to Collier’s magazine, admitting he occasionally allowed his temper to overcome his better judgment, particularly when he took notice of an extra playing checkers on a set that cost Paramount $50,000 a day. “That fellow should be paying attention to his job!” DeMille added with verve.
Typically, there were other snags along the way. You can’t have a picture of this magnitude and not expect at least a few setbacks. Years later, Charlton Heston would tell two apocryphal tales, both involving the climactic train wreck sequence. Shot in confined quarters, the script called for Heston to be semi-crushed beneath a pile of rubble, rescued by Holly’s quick thinking and an elephant hired to remove the heavy debris from his chest. Heston was indeed pinned beneath this weighty wreckage; the elephant seemingly suffering an attack of stage fright and preparing to go on a stampede. While cast and crew scattered to safety in all directions, Chuck was left to await the elephant’s decision; whether or not to trample him. In the other story, a leopard meant to escape its cage during the deluge actually darted off in a direction unknown to its wranglers; DeMille and the cast, again, frantic to know its whereabouts, whereupon DeMille turned in his director’s chair to suddenly realize the elegant spotted cat had come around from behind to see what all the fuss was about, left purring very close to his ear. 
Cribbing from DeMille’s bountiful research, the final draft screenplay by Fredric M. Frank, Barré Lyndon and Theodore St. John called for a murder mystery subplot involving Buttons – the clown (James Stewart).  Buttons is on the lam, having assisted in the suicide of his terminally ill wife. As written and eventually performed by Stewart, the character achieved an unlikely empathy. At least thematically, it gave a contemporary slant to MGM’s silent classic, He Who Gets Slapped (1924); a similarly scripted tale about a scientist reduced to the part of a circus clown. The PCA had come around to DeMille’s way of thinking, in part because the old master possessed great persuasiveness when he fervently believed he was right. But the Catholic League of Decency had other ideas, rating The Greatest Show on Earth a very solid ‘B’ – meaning it was morally objectionable in part for all persons. DeMille was left fuming. “With those Catholics a little euthanasia goes a long way!” 
Although no one could have known it at the time, The Greatest Show on Earth would be DeMille’s second to last movie and his only Oscar-winning Best Picture. As a time capsule of ‘50s super kitsch, The Greatest Show On Earth does live up to its namesake; rather delightfully, although it remains somewhat of a stretch to deduce exactly what Academy voters were thinking, to bestow a Best Picture Oscar on it in a year dominated by John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, John Ford’s The Quiet Man and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon. In retrospect, The Greatest Show on Earth is a mind-boggling and overstuffed bon-bon of oddities and legitimate circus acts, the backstage intrigues puffed out with a lot of glitter and some genuinely harrowing moments of melodrama; also, the unanticipated cameo appearances of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, sitting in the audience and thoroughly fixated on the high-flying Artonys. Wherever possible, DeMille populated his milieu with real acts; The Realles, The Fredonias, Mroczkowski's Liberty Horses, Buzzy Potts, The Flying Concellos, The Maxellos, amongst an overwhelming assortment, all appearing as themselves in the movie.
After a rousing main title written by Victor Young and Ned Washington, we settle into familiar DeMille territory; the old master paraphrasing from Courtney Ryley-Cooper’s novel. DeMille was particularly interested in the backstage mechanics of putting on such an elaborate travelling show, and determined his audience should be dazzled not only by the lavish absurdities brought to them nightly under the big top, but equally by the herculean process by which its spectacle is wrought. We settle into the basic conundrum facing Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey; times and tastes shifting toward other diversions and threatening to cut the full season by half, only playing the major cities on the circuit. Circus manager, Brad Braden (Heston) fights the decision by suggesting he has already secured the services of the Great Sebastian (Wilde), but only if the circus commits to a full season. Sebastian is big news, so the bosses reluctantly agree, but only so long as this travelling menagerie stays in the black.
Sebastian arrives at the company’s year round digs in Saratoga via a police escort. Having racked up nearly a hundred dollars in violations and fines, Sebastian is, of course, penniless. So, Brad pays out for the privilege of adding him to the show. Almost immediately, this creates friction between Brad and Holly. After all, with a big headliner like Sebastian on the bill, Holly is expected to give up her plum spot in the center ring. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Sebastian ingratiates himself to the ladies, some of whom are old news; like elephant act, Angel (Grahame) and gum-chewing singer, Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour). Angel and Sebastian evidently spent a weekend together in Paris; old times more fondly recalled by him than her. On the surface, this is particularly good news for the other half of Angel’s act, Klaus (Lyle Bettger) who misguidedly believes he has a chance to become more than a partner to Angel in the ring. But Angel fancies Brad who, of course, is somewhat engaged to Holly who, in turn, will eventually fall in, then out, of love with her competition – Sebastian. Ah, me, the foibles of flawed human romance.
Surveying the obtuse sophistication of these intertwining lives is Buttons, the clown (Stewart); who never appears in anything other than his ghost-white pancake and smiling red makeup. No one considers this odd, this being the circus, after all. But Buttons’ made up visage is actually a disguise to mask his true identity. He is hiding out from the police; a gifted surgeon who assisted in his terminally ill wife’s suicide. With every town they play, Buttons faces the real possibility of being arrested. To satisfy the production code, DeMille exploited every opportunity to reveal Buttons’ humanity. He’s kind to children, comforts his tearful and fearful mother, gives good solid advice to the lovelorn Holly about Brad, and vice versa to Brad and Angel, and, during the film’s climax, will be instrumental in saving a life, sacrificing his own freedom to do so. But for now, it’s business as usual…well, almost. For behind the scenes there lurks an insidious plot to ruin the circus from within; a mafia thug, Mr. Henderson (Lawrence Tierney) assigning one of his stooges, Harry (John Kellogg) to steal the circus blind while running a rigged set of games that will threaten the good, clean reputation of its showmanship.  
Learning of Holly’s sacrifice, Sebastian offers to give up the center ring. It’s all part of his plan to seduce Holly and Brad isn’t buying it for a moment. Besides, the public is paying to see the star attraction. As the final decision rests with Brad, Sebastian stays in the center ring, incurring Holly’s ire. She vows whatever tricks Sebastian performs in the center ring she will copy from her own spot in the first. If he does a double, she’ll do a triple. If he balances on his head using a safety donut, she’ll do the same trick without such a luxury. Brad is staunchly opposed to their ‘healthy’ competition. It can only end with the two needlessly risking their lives merely to prove a stubborn and very idiotic point.  But once Holly and Sebastian are off the ground he is powerless to prevent it.
The first few towns they play, this friendly competition goes off without a hitch, although there are plenty of sweaty palms in the audience; four of them belonging to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in cameos while taking a respite from their popular ‘Road to…’ series. Alas, fate catches up to vanity; Sebastian, in daring a brand new stunt in front of a live audience without the benefit of a net, or much rehearsal for that matter, misses his grip in mid-air and plummets to the heavy sawdust. Helped to his feet by Buttons and Brad, Sebastian is carted away in an ambulance, the circus’ doctor (Frank Wilcox) suggesting he may never perform on the trapeze again. In lieu of his absence, Holly is repositioned in the center ring. After all, the show must go on. In the meanwhile, Angel makes it very clear to Klaus she has no romantic interest in him whatsoever. Realizing he can tweak Klaus’ jealous streak to suit his own purpose, Harry suggests Angel has thrown him for Brad. Indeed, as Holly has since given her heart to Sebastian, Angel has wasted no time attempting to ingratiate herself to the boss.
Sebastian returns to the show, seemingly fully recovered. His bravado masks an unhappy reality; that his right arm has been paralyzed in the fall. Discovering the truth, Brad offers to keep Sebastian on. But Sebastian bears the brunt of scars to his ego and self-worth. He would go mad if surrounded by aerial artists while unable to partake in the pleasure and excitement of their act. Sebastian vows to leave the show as soon as he can establish another vocation and Holly makes it clear that when he leaves the circus, so shall she follow him onto whatever adventures their lives together have in store. Buttons gets wind of Klaus’ plan to crush Angel beneath an elephant’s hoof during a live performance. But Brad intervenes in the nick of time, saving Angel’s life and ordering Klaus to pack up his gear and get out of town, lest he reconsider pressing ‘attempted murder’ charges against him.
Harry quietly goads Klaus with a prospect to solve all their problems. As the circus train packs up and departs for its next location, he and Klaus will perform a daring stick-up; stealing the company’s bankroll and splitting the proceeds fifty-fifty. Actually, Harry has no reason to do so. He’s working for Henderson. But fueled by jealousy, Klaus is complicit and willing, and, easily manipulated. He can be the heavy for the robbery while Harry makes off with the loot. The two men drive out to a stretch of secluded tracks on the outskirts of town. Harry orders Klaus to light an emergency flare; its bright pink light seen by the conductor of the first train carrying the props and company’s bankroll. Harry has Klaus knock out the guard with his cane before holding up the train. Alas, the second train carrying all the acts is barreling down the tracks at full steam and fast approaching, quite unaware the first has stalled up ahead. Aboard also is FBI Agent Gregory (Henry Wilcoxin) who is determined to begin interviewing every member of Brad’s entourage in search of a killer. Brad forewarns Buttons his true identity is in jeopardy.
In the meantime, Klaus has had a change of heart. Hearing the whistle of the second train, he elects to warn them of the inevitable derailment. Harry tries to stop Klaus, but is knocked out in the process. Klaus turns on his high beams and drives his convertible onto the tracks. Too late, the conductor of the second train spots his vehicle, plowing into Klaus and then the first train at full speed. In the resulting catastrophe, many of the animal acts are freed from their cages, costumes and props strewn about the wreckage and all of the performers placed in peril; some, seriously wounded. Discovering Brad under a pile of debris, Angel’s quick thinking employs one of Klaus’ elephants to lift the heavy rigging off his chest.
To everyone’s horror, one of Brad’s major arteries has been punctured. He’s badly hemorrhaging and will surely die without the proper medical treatment. There’s no time to get him to a hospital. As the company’s doctor has been knocked unconscious in the wreck, Holly relies on Buttons to save Brad’s life. As every split second counts, Buttons elects to sacrifice his own discovery by Agent Gregory to save Brad’s life. A few harrowing minutes pass. Brad loses consciousness. Ultimately, however, his life is spared. Realizing he has found his man, Agent Gregory places Buttons under arrest. It looks as though the show will have to fold. But Holly has other notions. Carrying on as Brad would want her to, she organizes the surviving acts into an outdoor parade and later, a show without the benefit of the big top; Brad awakening to realize not only has he survived his ordeal, but that the greatest show on earth will endure, thanks to his paramour’s quick thinking. The two are reconciled in an ‘all’s well that ends well’ finale.
Audiences responded to The Greatest Show on Earth with exuberance and enthusiasm. DeMille’s attention to detail had inevitably paid off – handsomely. Everyone gets into the act; DeMille casting John Ringling North as his Master of Ceremonies and prominently featured throughout the story. Ultimately, DeMille understood his movie had to do more than extol the virtues and excitement of a real circus exhibition. It had to tell a story – and hopefully, more than one. Nevertheless, his soapy behind-the-scenes narrative gets off to a rocky start; DeMille’s obligatory introductions of the principles somewhat clumsily strewn between a series of atmospheric vignettes and montages, designed to give his audience a genuine flavor for the show within a show. In act two is where it all comes together; effectively so, the cast having established their purpose and character traits, now let loose to become integrated into the actual background milieu of these legitimate circus acts. There is a lot of blue screen, model and miniature work. Only some of it is convincingly achieved. Nevertheless, DeMille insisted on authenticity. While Cornel Wilde and Betty Hutton rarely left the ground, or were suspended merely feet from it, each performs some daring stunt work in close up with George Barnes’ cinematography making it appear as though they are dangling precariously high from their trapeze. A few long shots illustrate obvious doubles for both stars.  
After the picture had been in circulation for a couple of weeks, DeMille showed Charlton Heston a handwritten preview card, thanking DeMille for resurrecting the magic of a night under the big top. The comments were praiseworthy of the entire cast, but made particular mention to DeMille’s casting of ‘that circus manager’ who “managed to do a splendid job and hold his own amongst the actors.”  Heston would later muse, “High praise indeed. You can’t get much better than that!” Circus movies are rare these days; their charm and allure blunted by our present day outlook on animals in captivity, and people performing death-defying stunts, merely for our amusement. Like the changing times, circus pictures have come and gone. But 63 years later, DeMille’s classic arguably remains the greatest show on earth!
We really could use a new image harvest for this Oscar-winning Best Picture. The Greatest Show on Earth requires a ‘from the ground up’ digital clean up and restoration. Paramount Home Video’s DVD exhibits passable quality. Colors are generally rich, although the first few reels suffer from a deplorable mis-registration of its 3-strip Technicolor, resulting in unhealthy green halos around practically everything. When the Technicolor is properly aligned the picture pops with impressive detail and excellent contrast. A pity there are far too many age-related artifacts present throughout, exacerbated during dissolves and fades; rising to egregious levels during the split screen/blue screen traveling mattes. These are grainy and full of scratches. The audio is a big fat mono, although nicely balanced and exhibiting very little – if any - distortion. Bottom line: it’s disappointing to see a Best Picture winner get short shrift on DVD. If Paramount were still in charge of its own inventory I might have every reason to believe a new image harvest for The Greatest Show on Earth – was in the works, possibly, even for a hi-def Blu-ray. Alas, like a good many catalog titles, this one is now in the hands of Warner Home Video. Would they be adverse to a restoration? Hardly. But I would suggest since there are still several Oscar-winning Best Pictures from their own canon still MIA on Blu-ray (The Great Ziegfeld, The Life of Emile Zola and Around the World in Eight Days among them) Warner has bigger fish to fry. Still, I’m going to throw this one out to Mr. George Feltenstein and the Warner Archive. They’ve proven able-bodied in resurrecting a goodly number of classics from oblivion with stunning new image harvests. The Greatest Show on Earth would certainly be a very technically challenging and costly undertaking. But like all true collectors, I choose to entertain a modicum of faith when reaching out to the executive brain trust. Hey, George – come to the circus. Come to the show! Bottom line: recommended for content. The current transfer is middle of the road acceptable.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, March 1, 2015

MILDRED PIERCE (Warner Bros. 1945) Warner Home Video

It must have seemed foolhardy folly on Jack Warner’s part to hire Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce (1945).  Never mind James M. Caine’s hardboiled noir thriller contained enough incendiary dialogue and situations to send the production code into a forbidden fruit coma, and Mildred herself was hinted as a closeted lesbian with weird fetishisms; maiming her second husband’s unmentionables after discovering her own underage daughter, Veda in his bed. Mildred Pierce was a property long desired for screen dramatization by the dream merchants of Hollywood. The real mystery was not who shot Monte Beragon (played with oily finesse in the film by Zackery Scott), a plot entanglement concocted to suit the movie’s noir-styled murder mystery premise and equally appease the governing body of censorship, set to have a minor conniption if the due process of their own self-righteous morality police was not acknowledged and strictly adhered to; no – the biggest conundrum facing Jack Warner then was how to convince the public any movie based on Caine’s salacious page turner was worth seeing if it starred Joan Crawford.
By 1940, Crawford’s appeal had thoroughly slipped at the box office. Once considered the queen of all ‘shop girls make good’, Crawford had watched with powerless horror as her galvanized star became increasingly tarnished at MGM, the studio that had once fostered her career for more than two decades with such great care and consideration. L.B. Mayer had taken a virtual unknown named Lucille LeSeur and with a little of the studio’s fairy magic sprinkled Hollywood glamor to transform her into Joan Crawford. Joan never forgot the favor. “When I leave this apartment I am Joan Crawford!” she fondly mused, “If you want the girl next door – go next door!” Crawford’s glamorous façade was a pure fabrication of the star system back in the day and she took such stardom derived from it with the utmost seriousness, especially where her fans were concerned; often staying up until the wee hours of the morning replying to handwritten mail in kind and making it her mission never to appear in public as anything less than the glamor queen and elegant star.
But L.B. Mayer had sincerely tired of Crawford’s need to dominate the parts she played. Rumored to have seduced and slept with every leading man and director she ever worked with, Crawford’s bewitchment with her own fame (and gardenias) was to get the better of her by 1939, the year she appeared opposite her arch nemesis, Norma Shearer in the all-star sizzler, The Women. “How can I compete with her?” Crawford had publicly decried of Shearer, “She sleeps with the boss!” Fair enough, although Shearer also happened to be married to MGM’s VP in charge of production, Irving Thalberg until his untimely death in 1936. Crawford had assumed that with Thalberg’s passing she would be up for more plum parts at the studio. She even submitted to a salary cut to remain at MGM for several more years, hoping against hope for an image boost with meatier roles on the horizon. Alas, Crawford had made herself an undesirable on the back lot; her expanding repertoire unable to salvage her sagging public image as a fast fading movie queen. Besides, Mayer was moving his studio away from the more adult, female-based regality of the Thalberg era into a fresh-faced stable of younger, more malleable stars.
So, when Variety branded Crawford – among others – with the deadly career-ending moniker as ‘box office poison’, Mayer took it upon himself to buy out Crawford’s contract and give his former number one female star, whose combined pictures had earned him enough revenue to build the writer’s building, the old heave hoe. At Warner Brothers, Jack L. Warner was not entirely convinced Crawford was washed up. She had, for some years held the title ‘Hollywood royalty’. And more to the point, she was ripe for the picking at a bargain basement price; the perfect foil to keep his own grand diva – Bette Davis – in check. Warner hoped to put Crawford to work straight away in a series of modest programmers. But Crawford, doubtless aware another few duds at the box office could finish off her career for good, chose instead to play it cagey; refusing script after script and doing virtually no work at all for her new studio from 1942 to 1945. When she reemerged in Mildred Pierce, no one – least of all Jack Warner – was prepared for the meteoric results.
Mildred Pierce had been rejected by virtually every major leading lady under Warner’s creative umbrella. Even Bette Davis had declined the part of a self-sacrificing mother who, in her aspirations to give her spoilt daughter the world, ultimately brings ruin upon her own marriage and family. Davis didn’t want to play a mother. But Crawford seemed unafraid to embrace the prospect. In 1939, after a series of commercial flops, she had campaigned with voracity to be cast as the unscrupulous mantrap in The Women. When Mayer inquired why any star of her magnitude should wish to play such “an awful bitch”, Crawford hungrily replied, “I’d play Wally Beery’s mother if the part were right!” Miraculously, there’s none of this nail-biting desperation in evidence in Crawford’s peerless performance as Mildred Pierce. She assuages the part from middle-age housewife to hard-working business woman, to glamorous gal about town (a Crawford specialty) as though it were tailor-made for her, in the process wearing some of the most gorgeous furs and frocks to boggle the eye.
Warner put his top men on the project: Jerry Wald to produce it with soap opera-ish charm; caustic Hungarian director extraordinaire, Michael Curtiz to shoot it and topflight screen scenarist, Ranald MacDougall to succinctly bring the more hellacious episodes into line with the production code’s wishes for a ‘clean’ picture.  In hindsight, everything clicks, and Crawford worked like an animal to ensure her reputation both in front of and behind the camera as the consummate professional remained intact. Viewing Mildred Pierce today, one can immediately see how little Mayer understood about his ex-star. Crawford radiates high wattage desirability from every pore; also, a python-like venom, briefly displayed at pivotal moments in the movie; as in the moment when Mildred’s daughter, Veda slaps her face for tearing up a check, obtained from a wealthy dowager, presumably as hush money for the abortion of an unwanted love child sired by the woman’s son. Crawford is magnificent as she runs the gamut from startled to disappointed matriarch, the slap stirring bizarre rage from within, best exemplified in those darting Crawford eyes, suddenly bulging with brimstone and a mass of wounded, downturned lips as she declares, “Get out, Veda. Get out before I throw you and all of your things out into the street. Get out before I kill you!”
The rest of the cast are really in service to la Crawford; Warner padding out the story with a trio of ineffectual male suitors, brilliantly conceived by former Olympian, Bruce Bennett – as Mildred’s philandering first husband, Bert; the aforementioned Zackery Scott (as hubby #2, the elegant sponge, Monte Beragon) and Jack Carson, as Wally Fay; a disreputable cad with only one thing on his mind. As Mildred’s right hand, Warner assigned Eve Arden the plum part of sassy manager, Ida Corwin. She has more scathing one-liners than Oscar Levant.  Leered at by Wally, in her calf-exposing skirt, Ida astutely replies, “Leave me something, I might catch cold.” To Mildred’s bookish and easily flustered accountant, Mr. Jones, who inquires why she must always interrupt, Ida frankly teases, “It's only because I want to be alone with you. Come here and let me bite you, you darling man!” before barking at him like a St. Bernard. The forties at Warner Brothers were particularly rife with this sort of sidekick relief, ascribed the hero or heroine of a piece as a delightfully obtuse diversion for which Arden seems to have been born to play.
The part of Veda went to Ann Blyth; a cat-faced ingénue being groomed by the studio, she could play angelic or pure acid as propriety and the part demanded. Veda Pierce is one of those iconic screen bitches you absolutely love to hate; a soulless, manipulative viper without a scruple to her name. And Blyth gives us this wicked tart in all her unrefined and adolescent glory; the girl most likely to exploit a love affair and pump a discarded lover so full of holes he resembles Swiss cheese. Veda is pure poison to anyone – though, in the final analysis, chiefly detrimental to herself. Her sense of entitlement, secured by Mildred’s hard work and ambition, Veda runs through the latter half of the picture with a sinfulness rarely seen on the screen, particularly in one so young. She also damn near runs away with the picture. But Crawford had nothing to fear. From start to finish, Mildred Pierce is her movie and she is clearly relishing the return to glamour; also Warner’s personal commitment to resurrecting her career from oblivion. She might have first considered why the old mogul had done it. Crawford’s arrival on the Warner backlot was given A-list pomp and circumstance, leaving the studio’s undisputed grand dame, Bette Davis, with her nose out of joint. Crawford tried everything to win Davis as an ally but it was no use. From the moment she set foot on those soundstages, Crawford was viewed by Davis as her adversary to be squashed and openly ridiculed, leaving Crawford to reinvigorate herself with the left over war paint from her skirmishes with Norma Shearer.
Mildred Pierce opens with a superb main title by Max Steiner, the crashing tides set to his bombastic theme. From here, we digress to some equally exquisite nighttime noir photography by Ernest Haller; a long shot of a fashionable beach house and the sound of echoing gunfire from within. Cue Monte Beragon, the unwitting victim of a cold-blooded assassination, stumbling about the darkened living room, the flicker of flames from a nearby hearth dancing across his sweaty visage as he mutters ‘Mildred’ before collapsing on a bearskin rug; a pistol tossed next to his body and the sound of someone fleeing the house. Cut to a moody and fog-laden pier; Mildred, tear-stained and emotionally overwrought, walks towards the edge of the boardwalk, about to take a dive off its most perilous point; thwarted in her suicide attempt by a curmudgeonly cop walking the beat. These opening sequences are, as Bogart put it in The Maltese Falcon, “the stuff that (noir) dreams are made of”; the tone shifting ever so slightly as Wally Fay, observing Mildred through a damp window from his seedy bar, ushers her inside for a drink. She suggests a midnight rendezvous at her beach house instead. For Wally, who has been entertaining such notions for far too long, the offer is too good to pass. But once alone at the beach house, Mildred does everything to dissuade Wally from the very reason he followed her home. Spilling a drink on purpose, Mildred skulks off to the bedroom to change, instead sneaking out the back way and leaving Wally to quickly discover he is being framed for Monte’s murder.
We regress to an even more posh estate, home to Mildred, the late Monte Beragon and Mildred’s daughter from her first marriage, Veda. Presently, a visibly shaken Veda is entertaining two detectives from the county police come to inquire about Monte’s untimely end. Leaving Veda at home, Mildred is taken downtown and confronted by Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen) with the facts of the case; the allegation Mildred’s first husband, Bert is the prime suspect, sparking a prolonged confession. Thus begins the elaborate flashback that is Mildred Pierce. We see Mildred as the middle-aged mother of two; toiling in the kitchen while her daughters, Veda and Kay (Jo Ann Marlow) are afforded every luxury, despite Bert’s meager salary. When Bert returns home to explain he has lost his job; Mildred’s suggestion she could take in some neighborhood laundry to tide them over, disgusts Bert. At the same time, Mildred is well aware of her husband’s philandering with the wealthy, Mrs. Maggie Biederhof (Lee Patrick).  Wally offers Mildred the stability of a guy who’s making good money as a realtor. But Mildred finds him physically repulsive.
Mildred has scrimped and saved for a new dress for Veda, mildly ashamed when Veda scorns the offering in private. Veda’s vanity is all-consuming. Bert, in fact, warns Mildred her spoiling of the girl will be her undoing. Besides, he prefers the more tomboyish, Kay to Veda. She’s bright, quick-witted and unassuming. A short while later, Mildred’s marriage to Bert falls completely apart. She orders him out of the house and sets about establishing a career for herself as a waitress at a local greasy spoon, run by Ida Corwin. To make even more money on the side, Mildred takes to baking pies for the diner, able aided by her new, if simple-minded maid, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen).  Veda is condescending of her mother’s work ethic, considering it degrading. However, she has absolutely no compunction spending her mother’s hard-earned money on frivolities of every shape and size. In the meantime, Kay contracts pneumonia and dies. Mildred and Bert are briefly brought together by this tragedy. But afterward, Mildred takes it into her heart to become the owner of her own restaurant; picking out a property on the old highway and asking Wally to help her buy it for a song. The building is worn but of the necessary size to accommodate her dreams. It also happens to be owned by Monte Beragon who takes an immediate interest in Mildred, offering her the property for nothing down. Mildred hires Ida to help her run things and Lottie to work in the kitchen. Within no time, she has established a chain of highly successful restaurants; the revenue from these endeavors affording Veda even more ways to get into trouble.
Monte, who had once pursued Mildred with an oily passion, now shifts his attentions to Veda on the sly. He marries Mildred to ensure his own lucrative cash flow; also, to be near Veda while Mildred is away running her restaurant empire. Only Ida is clear-eyed enough to see what is going on. She forewarns Mildred of a looming disaster without giving away the goods on Monte and Veda. Alas, a short while later, Veda has orchestrated a rather coy deception involving an impressionable suitor, Theodore 'Ted' Ellison Forrester (John Compton); Mrs. Forrester (Barbar Brown) confronting Mildred with the notion their two families would be entirely unsuitable for a marriage that, alas, has already occurred. Wally helps orchestrate a settlement from the Forresters to keep the elopement quiet; also some shush money to help Veda in ‘her condition’; the bombshell dropped in Mildred’s lap when Veda actually confesses she has faked the pregnancy merely to extort money from Ted’s family so she can get away from her. Outraged, Mildred destroys Veda’s settlement check; mother and daughter coming to blows before Mildred orders her out of the house.
A short while later Wally informs Mildred that Veda is performing as a lounge singer in his disreputable beachside bar. Mildred pleads with Veda to return to her new home with Monte and Veda sets about finagling her way back into Monte’s heart. On the eve of Veda’s lavish birthday party, Mildred learns Monte has been siphoning badly needed investment from her restaurants to settle his mounting gambling debts. Mildred is broke and her creditors are about to close in. Mildred learns Monte has gone to the beach house after the party and, taking a gun from the register, tails him there, whereupon she discovers husband and daughter locked in each other’s arms. Veda proudly declares Monte will divorce Mildred to marry her. Distraught and penniless, Mildred suffers a breakdown and tosses the gun to the floor, hurrying away in a tear-stained fit of shame. Monte turns on Veda. She was never his idea of a lasting love interest. And now, without Mildred’s money, she’s all but ruined his chances to continue to sponge off of the family until the well has completely run dry. Realizing Monte never loved her, Veda shoots him dead with unrepentant scorn. Hearing the shots, Mildred burst into the beach house, discovers the body and decides to telephone the police. At the last possible moment, Veda tearfully pleads for Mildred to help cover up the crime; blaming Mildred for the way that she has turned out. Unable to send her daughter to prison, Mildred tearfully agrees and sends Veda home.
We return to the police station where the flashback began; Inspector Peterson revealing Veda as the killer. Mildred is horrified to have let her daughter down. But Veda is as remorseless as ever; even slightly psychotic as she coolly tells her mother goodbye before being led away in handcuffs. Departing the precinct at the break of dawn, Mildred is surprised to discover Bert waiting for her on the steps. The two walk past a pair of drudges washing the marble steps on their hands and knees; shades of Mildred’s former self reflected back at her as she turns toward the sunset – hopefully with a new and more promising life ahead on the horizon.
Joan Crawford desperately wanted to win the Academy Award for Mildred Pierce. There are conflicting stories as to the much publicized photos taken of Crawford accepting the award from director, Michael Curtiz at her bedside. In her scathing tell-all, adopted daughter Christina cruelly suggests the whole thing was an elaborate hoax, Joan merely suffering from an acute attack of nerves, lest she lose to one of the other nominees and be forced to go home from the auditorium empty-handed. Whatever the case, Crawford did win her one and only statuette for Mildred Pierce; the press waiting with cameras poised to capture her moment of triumph from bed. Mildred Pierce is a perfectly packaged entertainment with Crawford as its most decorous centerpiece. She runs the gamut of emotions. Yet, her performance is remarkably restrained; the screen queen knowing exactly when to hold her punches and when to give the scene her all. In virtually all the subsequent movies Crawford would make for Warner Bros. this artifice increasingly becomes unbalanced to the point where Crawford eventually becomes a parody of herself; wielding tears and tortured screams as though she were a mad woman unable to contain such raw emotions. 
Interestingly, at the height of her Warner years, Crawford elected to make a hilarious cameo in the Doris Day musical, It’s A Great Feeling (1949), attacking a studio exec’ played by Jack Carson and slapping him in the face. Asked what prompted the outburst, Crawford reverts to her usual retiring self, sweetly smiling as she declares with shrugged shoulders, “I do that in all my pictures!” And, indeed, by the end of her Warner tenure Crawford had generally devolved into such camp-infused elements.  Mildred Pierce is effective precisely because it catches Crawford at a particularly vulnerable moment in her career. She’s still as sophisticated as ever, but slightly chaste in the knowledge her last four or five pictures at Metro were not hits, that Jack Warner is taking an incredible gamble in hiring her when no other studio would, and, any misfire at this particular juncture could spell utter disaster for her future feasibility. As such, her performance in Mildred Pierce has been given the benefit of Crawford’s two decades of wisdom and experience at MGM, but also the reserved charm of a woman clever enough – if desperate – to make good and defy the moniker of ‘box office poison’ in usual Crawford fashion; with sensational charisma.
Sadly, today the name Joan Crawford has become rather synonymous with Christina Crawford’s vulgar tell-all, Mommie Dearest; the ensconced image of a wild-eyed gargoyle played by Faye Dunaway in the movie version, beating her children wire-hangers in the middle of the night, completely at odds with the self-sacrificing martyr Crawford plays in Mildred Pierce. There is, however, another image of Crawford the public ought to take with them; that of the regal movie diva who, for each and every Christmas, bought members of the crew working on her movies lavish gifts of thanks and gratitude; the woman who schooled and raised four adopted children, mostly on her own – three of whom have come to regard Christina’s novel as a largely fictitious hatchet job. Mildred Pierce gives us Crawford at the height of her glory. It also affords her the opportunity to rise like cream to the top of her profession as a bona fide Academy Award-winning actress; a status unattainable from all her workmanlike and money-making servitude at MGM’s dream factory.
Mayer was likely chagrined to see his castoff diva earning big bucks for a rival; enough for the studio’s new management to invite Crawford back to Metro for the abysmal musical clunker, Torch Song (1953); easily one of the tackiest musicals ever made on the backlot. On her last day at MGM, Crawford had driven past the front gates without fanfare, escort or even so much as a polite ‘thank you’ for all the years and millions her star power had helped pour into that studio. With Mildred Pierce, Crawford was back on top, proving she could well do without L.B. Mayer or his studio, so long as the material at her new digs was good enough and glamorous enough to perpetuate the mythology of her manufactured star status.
For much too long now Warner Home Video has been tempting us with the prospect of seeing Mildred Pierce on Blu-ray. Last year’s hi-def release of the lesser known Warner classic, Possessed (1947) via the Warner Archive seemed to suggest Mildred Pierce was poised for new life in 1080p. Alas, still no definite announcement when or where this title might resurface. We shouldn’t fret too much, since the quality of Warner’s DVD is bar none one of the best SD restorations of all time; still easily a reference quality disc to enjoy. The result of considerable restoration, the image harvest here is, in a word, superb. Contrast levels are perfectly realized. The B&W elements are very smooth. Age-related artifacts are nowhere to be seen. Contrast and film grain truly exhibit the ‘wow’ factor in every frame. A classy noir drama gets its due. One can assume a Blu-ray would be that much more stunning. The audio is mono but impeccably remastered. For those not old enough to remember, previous releases of this movie to other video formats – including VHS and LaserDisc – revealed the film’s deplorable condition. The DVD is picture perfect and with restored sound to boot. The only thing that could please us more would be a Blu-ray. Pretty please, WB?!?
This disc is a flipper. On the backside is TCM’s spectacular feature-length documentary on Joan Crawford – filled with an impressive array of archival footage, stock and new interviews and recollections from the people who knew Crawford best. The documentary alone is a must have/must see experience. Combined with the movie, there’s really no consideration necessary here. Mildred Pierce is a must own catalog title. One sincerely wishes more Crawford was currently available in as good condition as this. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)