Saturday, October 10, 2015

KINGS ROW (Warner Bros. 1942) Warner Home Video

In the mid-1980’s, a rather underhanded rumor began to proliferate among the popular cultural mandarins in news media; that the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan had never been much of an actor prior to entering the White House. Although the liberal biases were begrudgingly forced to accept Reagan’s presidency as both beloved and Teflon-coated, (how could they otherwise when Reagan, ever the master of his medium, was able to exploit TV itself to reach the American people like no other president before or since), the legacy of Reagan’s past life as an affable ‘star’ was insidiously distilled into a colossal and rather confounding joke; one for which his segue into politics had, arguably, rescued what little reputation was left to be had. ‘Cruddy actor’ was the term most commonly coined to explain away Reagan’s years as a Warner Bros. contract player; a moniker blanketing his entire career, though in fact, referencing only one movie, 1951’s infamous misfire, Bedtime for Bonzo; indeed, a horrendous effort for which perhaps no excuse or apology will suffice, except to say it must have at least ‘seemed’ like a good idea at the time.
Yet, it behooves us to reconsider most every iconic actor has made at least one bad movie. John Wayne made several, including The Conqueror (1956). Joan Crawford did Berserk (1967), and then, Trog (1970). Bette Davis had Beyond the Forest (1949) to live down. Yet, if the world could forgive these Hollywood alumni their artistic trespasses, why not the same leniency applied to Reagan’s celluloid legacy? Lest we forget, Reagan acquitted himself rather nicely of a cameo in Davis’ Dark Victory (1939) before embarking on a career to include such memorable outings as Knute Rockne: All American (1940), This is the Army (1943), The Hasty Heart (1949), Storm Warning (1951) and The Winning Team (1952). With the passage of time, the envy and self-serving attitude of the media in the eighties is even more transparent; attempts made to tear down Reagan’s movie-land legacy, their sole counterbalance to spite his unprecedented soaring popularity in the polls. Yet, to simply think of Reagan’s movie career in the shadow of a single misfire is ridiculous and, in fact, thoroughly misguided.
In the days before the proliferation of home video made it possible to unearth the antiquity of any actor’s career – and late night movies were the only way to ever hope to catch a glimpse of old-time Hollywood’s formidable back catalog – one could so easily be inclined to take such snap analyses at face value or, in my case, before the days of the internet, begin to probe the vast resources of yellowing film history text books at the public library in search of Reagan’s previous life. What I quickly discovered was a rather extensive back catalog of accomplishments. Surely, if Reagan had been as utterly atrocious as I had been led to believe, a mogul as savvy as Jack L. Warner would have terminated his contract long before 1950 and Reagan’s subsequent ventures into television (that lasted until 1965, when he officially retired to pursue a life in politics) would not have outlasted a decade.
Ah, but then I discovered Sam Wood’s Kings Row (1942); Reagan cast as Drake McHugh, a dashing turn-of-the-century playboy whose life is almost destroyed by an unscrupulous doctor’s maliciousness. Luminously photographed by master class man and ‘A-list’ cinematographer, James Wong Howe and penned with an exceptionally concise emotional intensity by Casey Robinson – then, one of the studio’s hardest working and undeniably most brilliant screenwriters, Kings Row remains perhaps the exemplar of just how good Ronald Reagan could be, given the right material in a very prestigious part. The film is, of course, based on Henry Bellaman’s best-selling novel. Shortly after the book’s runaway success, Bellaman openly conceded he had modeled his ‘fictional’ characters on real people known to him in his own small Missouri enclave of Fulton – a confession effectively to ostracize the author from polite circles in that society shortly thereafter.
The book is about some very troubled lives; small town bigotry, mental disease, deviant sexual proclivities and first generation classicist biases. The novel reveals salacious moonlit affairs and some truly vial backstabbing; all of it seen primarily through the eyes of an innocent; Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings). Orphaned but afforded the luxury to study abroad by a rich benefactress, Madame Von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya), Parris leaves the seemingly idyllic, if provincial, town of Kings Row as an impressionable youth to pursue his dreams of becoming a great doctor, only to return home years later, disillusioned by how much the people he has known all his life have changed (or perhaps stayed the same is more to the point) since his memory of those bygone days. 
There are, to be sure, citizens of the realm still worth remembering; the kindly – but mysterious – Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains), whose guardianship of Parris’ early career and training are wrecked by a dark family secret. And there is Parris’ enduring friendship with Drake McHugh; a highborn who loses his family fortunes through no fault of his own, eventually leading to an untimely and wholly unnecessary sacrifice. In the final act, Parris’ burgeoning romance with Elise Sandor (Kaaren Verne) is threatened by his experimental ‘cure’ for Drake’s deep depression; also, his belief that the tortured Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman) can escape a complete mental implosion by exposing one of the town’s most wicked secrets.
Samuel Grosvener Wood is a sadly forgotten director today. His prolific career as a workhorse at MGM included such iconic films as the Marx Brothers’ riotous, A Night at The Opera (1935) and the poetically understated, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), light-hearted melodramas like Ginger Rogers Oscar-winning, Kitty Foyle (1940), and, manly tear-jerkers, The Pride of the Yankees (1942) – to say nothing of his unsung contributions as an uncredited second unit director on Gone With The Wind (1939). By 1942, Wood had culled a lifetime of directorial experiences to benefit Kings Row: arguably his finest achievement. The film is an exquisite tapestry of interwoven lives imbued with a thread of kindheartedness for Bellaman’s motley brood. Indeed, in perusing Bellaman’s novel again, one is immediately struck by the lack of empathy for these characters; Wood bringing ‘compassion’ to the forefront, and a richly rewarding redemption in personal faith.
The film would be nothing at all, but darkly tragic and depressingly gritty without this ever so slight veneer, wholly a concoction of Hollywood’s then fervent belief in achieving clarity via the proverbial ‘happy ending’. On celluloid, Kings Row remains darkly attractive, brooding and, at times, harrowingly bleak, and yet, the emancipating quality achieved by Wood for the film – particularly, in its ending – does not betray Bellaman’s carefully crafted ‘best-selling’ prose, in much the same way Selznick’s tampering with the finale to GWTW only serves to elevate and celebrate the triumph of the human spirit. It all works like magic – practically, and with the seamless result of some very articulate behind-the-scenes planning, superbly executed in front of the camera to take full advantage of a studio system at its zenith – all pistons firing in unison.
The story essentially focuses on five lifelong friendships begun in childhood; optimist Parris Mitchell (Scotty Becket as a boy, Robert Cummings as a man), free spirit Drake McHugh (Douglas Scott/Ronald Reagan), tomboyish Randy Monaghan (Ann Todd/Ann Sheridan), defiant Louise Gordon (Joan Duvalle/Nancy Coleman) and mentally unstable, Cassandra Tower (Mary Thomas/Betty Field): all of whom reside within the parameters of this outwardly idyllic mid-western turn-of-the-century hamlet. Parris is a sensitive child, pure of heart and utterly devoted to his aging grandmother, Madame Marie Von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya). The first third of the picture is devoted to one of the most tender and understated coming-of-age representations in screen history, as young Parris acquires the cold harsh facts of life and unravels a mystery behind small town bigotry that has caused a once prominent physician, Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains) to live in virtual isolation. Tower’s wife (Eden Gray) suffers from dementia and has been made a virtual prisoner, confined to the upstairs quarters of the family home. Tower’s daughter, Cassie is Parris’ best friend in childhood and vice versa. At the start of the movie, Parris’ grandmother, Marie confides in him an invaluable life lesson;“You have to judge people by how you find them…and not by what others tell you they are.”
The years pass.  Mrs. Tower dies. Owing to his discovery of the first signs of dementia in Cassandra, Dr. Tower confines her to the family’s home in her teenage years. At the same time, he befriends Parris as the son he would have wished to call his own and encourages his studies in medicine. Marie has set aside necessary funds for Parris to pursue medical training at a prestigious college in Vienna. At the same time, Dr. Henry Gordon (Charles Coburn) has diagnosed Marie with terminal cancer. Marie elects to keep her condition a secret from Parris, certain if he discovers the truth he will surely sacrifice his plans to remain behind and look after her. Marie places the entirety of her estate in trust with the town’s attorney, Colonel Skeffington (Harry Davenport); a benevolent trustee. She had hoped to live long enough for Parris to leave Kings Row, but dies a short while later, leaving Parris heartbroken. 
But Parris is vehemently discouraged by Dr. Tower to ever see Cassandra again. Nevertheless, he pursues a romantic liaison; using Drake’s fashionable home on Union Square as their secret rendezvous; this pair of sports living it up while Drake double-dates the Ross sisters, Jinny (Mary Scott) and Poppy (Julia Warren), but also makes more serious intensions known to Louise. Regrettably, Henry Gordon, and his prudish wife, Harriet (Judith Anderson) find nothing amusing about their daughter’s infatuation with Drake. After Drake proposes to Louise in front of her parents, she foolishly sides with her overbearing father’s wishes instead, forcing Drake to forsake her. As Parris packs his bags to depart Kings Row, Cassandra bursts into Drake’s home; wild-eyed and fearful. Her cryptic plea leaves Parris perplexed. He decides to follow her, arriving in time to see Dr. Tower turn in for the night. The next day, Drake learns Dr. Tower poisoned Cassandra before taking his own life with a single bullet. The homicide/suicide is a scandal that rocks the community, thoroughly investigated by Col. Skeffington and Dr. Gordon. Believing Tower might have murdered Cassie because of the affair with Parris, Drake assumes full responsibility – thus, shifting whatever misperceived shame and/or blame might arise to his already notorious reputation. Gordon is all too willing to believe this story and more certain than ever Louise will have no part of Drake. Drake’s head, however, is quickly turned by a chance meeting with childhood friend, Randy Monaghan at the depot the next day as he prepares to see Parris off to Europe.
Time once again passes, although it hardly heals old wounds. Drake and Randy’s playful friendship blossoms into a legitimate romance; tested after Drake learns Lucius Curly (whom we never see), the president of the bank where his inheritance is being held in trust, has absconded with his entire fortune as well as a few others belonging to several prominent clients in town.  Left penniless, Drake quickly discovers Randy’s love for him has not diminished. But Randy is fearful of what her father (Ernest Cossart) and elder brother, Tod (Pat Moriarity) will think of her fooling around with a man who is not of the working class. Her fears prove unfounded when Drake barges in on the family at dinner and declares his intensions to marry Randy. He also rather sheepishly asks Randy’s ‘Pa’ to help him find a job in the rail stockyards where he and Parris used to play as boys. Alas, as fate would have it, this will be a deciding factor in Drake’s fate. For upon securing a position in the railyards, and making good, much to Randy’s delight, Drake is befallen by a tragic accident that nearly crushes him beneath a moving freight car. Calling for the doctor during one of Col. Skeffington’s parties, Henry Gordon rushes to the scene with his kit. He performs a double amputation without the benefit of chloroform; a similar procedure he conducted many years earlier on the father of young Willie Macintosh (Henry Blair) that resulted in the elder Macintosh dying from shock and blood poisoning. Drake, however, survives his operation. But his state of mind, the very essence of what was once a carefree bon vivant has been irreversibly shattered. Drake falls into a crippling depression. Tod and Pa Monaghan side with Randy. She marries Drake, not out of pity, but love and moves him into an upstairs bedroom inside their cramped shanty flat.
Tod carries a guilty secret; he suspects Dr. Gordon performed unnecessary surgery on Drake out of spite. In the meantime, Louise – who unbeknownst to anyone witnessed the savage operation – confronts her father, admonishing him as a sadist and threatening to spill his wicked secret to the entire town. Louise is silenced by Gordon with the threat of institutionalization, repeatedly drugged and kept a prisoner in her own home.  Her mind truly begins to implode into a semi-lucid state.  Having written Parris of Drake’s accident, Randy is bequeathed the generous remainder of monies Parris accrued from the sale of his late grandmother’s estate in the hopes it will provide them both with a fresh start and give Drake a renewed sense of purpose.  Parris – now a full-fledged psychiatrist, is offered a position with one of Vienna’s leading hospitals for the treatment of the delusions of the mind. Instead, he elects to take a leave of absence in Kings Row.
Mistaking Parris’ arrival as a homecoming, Col. Skeffington sets up a general practitioner’s office for him opposite his own, only to discover Parris has every intention of returning to Vienna once he believes he has helped Drake regain his confidence.  Parris also learns in the interim, Dr. Gordon has died of a heart attack. A letter arrives, sent by Harriet Gordon who pleads with Parris to attend her daughter. But Harriet is not in search of a solution to her ailing child’s precarious mental state; rather, seeking a professional opinion to help institutionalize her and thus keep her late husband’s sadistic surgeries quietly concealed from the rest of Kings Row. Conflicted about what ought to be done, Parris makes a pilgrimage to his grandmother’s home. He meets the new tenants, Mr. Sandor (Erwin Kalser) and his nineteen year old daughter, Elise (Kaaren Verne). She rekindles memories of the late Cassandra within him and proves a very astute confidante, steadily falling more in love with Parris every day. When Elise suggests to Parris he is perhaps too close to Drake to accurately assess what needs to be done, Parris elects to apply a risky remedy that will either stir his best friend from his depression or forever wreck his already fragile emotional psyche.
The penultimate confessional is first pitched to Randy. But even she believes that to admit Dr. Gordon may have amputated Drake’s legs needlessly, will destroy her husband’s resolve.  Parris disagrees and thus begins the treatment, Parris declaring “You’re not my friend. I’m just your doctor. My grandmother used to say, some people grow up and some just grow older. I guess it’s time we found out about us – you and me. Whether I’m a doctor. Whether you’re a man. There’s a piece of poetry – Invictus…out of the night that covers me, black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, my head is bloody, but unbowed.”  Parris pauses a moment to let his words sink in before adding to his own belief that Drake’s double amputation was performed out of spite by Gordon rather than necessity; the wicked doctor’s last chance to destroy Louise’s love for the man he always considered half as good for her, now ‘literally’ made half by having his legs severed.
This climax is photographed with exemplary restraint by Wood and given immaculate stature from both Cummings and Reagan; the latter’s reaction translating in an instant from abject bewilderment, anger to fear, then finally, liberation with a sudden dissolution into laughter, renewing Drake’s boastful swagger. It is Reagan’s finest moment in the picture – if not, in fact, his entire career and punctuated by an ebullient groundswell in Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s magnificent underscore. Recognizing his cure has taken hold, Parris races from the room, down the stairs and into the stark and liberating lightness of dawn; his exuberance exquisitely realized in the movie’s penultimate moment; a long shot, as Parris cautiously approaches his grandmother’s home with Elise steadily advancing across the open fields towards him. A lesser director might have cut to an extreme close-up, the lover’s embrace in a fantasia of passionate kisses. But Wood wisely lets this last shot in the picture linger to reflect the promise and daydream of what Elise and Parris’ lives together might hold from this moment forward; punctuated by a clash of Korngold’s cymbals and the profoundly moving choral arrangement.
Kings Row is a supremely satisfying melodrama, yet a somewhat strained epitaph to the button-down Victorian era, herein roiling in the counterfeit projections of an author clearly commenting on the social afflictions and moral turpitude of his present age. Viewing the movie’s sanitized reconstitution of Bellaman’s prose, it is all too easy to forget the novel was teeming with hetero and homo-erotic taboos. Indeed, in preparing the picture, Jack Warner was sincerely cautioned by Hollywood’s governing censorship mandarin, Joseph Breen, not to press on. In reality, the picture is made with more than a modicum of good taste, the lily gilded perhaps just a tad too heavily only at the start of the picture, as a carriage and horses pass by a large placard advertising Kings Row as “a good clean town to live in and raise your children.” However, almost immediately what follows in the Casey Robinson screenplay begins to prove otherwise; even as a very young and decidedly innocent Parris and Cassandra indulge a coeducational skinny dip in a nearby pond.  
At some point, producer, Hal B. Wallis entertained the notion of casting Warner contract player, Ida Lupino as Cassandra; a role much coveted by a diverse cross section of actresses, including Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Gene Tierney and Pricilla Lane. Wallis had also desired 2oth Century-Fox’s resident heartthrob, Tyrone Power for the part of Parris. He received a flat out refusal from mogul, Darryl F. Zanuck, who likely recalled another unhappy loan out of his number one box office draw to MGM a few years earlier for Marie Antoinette (1938) and was unwilling to repeat the same mistake twice. Instead, Robert Cummings was borrowed from Universal. Likewise, Reagan’s involvement on the picture came about only after Rex Downing and John Garfield both turned the part down. Just as production was about to get underway, actor James Stephenson – originally cast as Dr. Tower – suddenly died; replaced at the last minute by the inimitable Claude Rains – an impeccable second choice.
Bellaman's novel came with its own controversies and drawbacks; not the least of which was its incestuous relationship between Dr. Tower and Cassandra. Indeed, the original screenwriter, Wolfgang Reinhardt balked at the assignment, while Casey Robinson – the man who ultimately committed himself to the project - fervently believed it was a fruitless endeavor under the stringency of Hollywood's self-censoring code of ethics. Joseph Breen, then head of the Code, passed along his own strenuous objections to Wallis, beginning with “to attempt to translate such a story to the screen…is, in our judgment, a very questionable undertaking from the standpoint of the good and welfare of this industry. No matter how well done, it will bring condemnation from descent people everywhere because it stems from so questionable a novel to begin with.” Bellaman’s novel, with its frequent illicit rendezvous, questionably loose sexual mores, haunting and lurid depictions of family incest, mental disease and barbarous sadism, to say nothing of Parris ‘mercy killing’ of his beloved grandmother caught in the death throes of painful bone cancer, were heavily rewritten to satisfy and, in fact, rather miraculously override Breen’s concerns.  Primarily to placate Breen, Wallis arranged a meeting between him and Robinson and associate producer, David Lewis, whereupon Wallis made his intensions clear: the purpose of the movie would be to “illustrate how a doctor could relieve the internal destruction of a stricken community.”
In reviewing Kings Row today, it is remarkable just how much of Bellaman’s provocative prose remain intact. Yes, we lose the incest angle; the affair between Parris and Cassandra now perceived by Dr. Tower as an entrapment that will destroy Parris’ chances of becoming a great physician just as Tower’s own career was ruined by his constant devotion to a mentally unstable wife. Thus, Tower’s poisoning of Cassandra, as well as the taking of his own life, appear to be driven by a perverse if queerly noble altruism. It also serves as a plot device to set Parris upon his truer destiny – essentially to become the great doctor he was born to be. Even more remarkable, there is very little dilution of the unmarried sexual liaisons in the film; Drake with the Ross sisters, or with Louise, and later, with Randy who tells Drake openly before his ‘accident’ she will enjoy his company but never become his wife; the inference blunted, but still frank – that whoring around on the sly is preferred. Also, we are privy to Cassandra’s troubled seduction of Parris during a violent thunderstorm while Dr. Tower is away; the mood palpably lascivious as the two fatal lovers throw caution to the wind – literally – and lock in each other’s arms; the lights going out, their clinch back lit and silhouetted against a window pelted by rain and the constant beating of tree branches fiercely shaken by flashes of lightning and thunder.
These more salacious aspects from the novel are intricately implied in the movie – so as not to give undue offence – but sandwiched between some of the most eloquent screenwriting Casey Robinson ever committed to film. Good writing can go an awfully long way to suggest bad thoughts and deeds without ever succumbing to the allure of exploiting them for their smut value. And Robinson does more than merely parallel the novel’s sensual content through clever prose. He enhances both the book’s premise and its content in cinematic terms while never luxuriating in either its titillation or its froth. In the end, Kings Row remains more than a precursor to another tawdry novel looming on the horizon, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (not nearly as successfully adapted into a movie). Robinson’s writing, Wood’s direction, and the performances throughout all conspire to will a mammoth achievement that is both hot-blooded and menacingly perverse. And yet, Robinson extols the virtues as well as the vices of this Victorian mid-western town; perhaps affording both it and the movie’s narrative the greatest exaltation in a scene where Colonel Skeffington quietly observes Marie Von Eln’s labored, ascending the stairs and being put to bed by her ever-faithful housemaid, Anna (Ilka Grüning). “When she passes…” Skeffington astutely surmises, “…how much passes with her…a whole way of life; of gentleness and honor and dignity. These things are going and may never come back to this world.” – and so, even more regrettably (and prolifically) they have. 
I am sincerely going to champion the Warner Archive (WAC) to get behind a Blu-ray release of Kings Row – one of their crown jewels in forties screen entertainment (with a nod to My Reputation, The Letter, Humoresque, and, Mildred Pierce). The present DVD release via Warner Home Video proper is a very mixed bag. The B&W image is mostly strong in its contrast, and, relatively clean throughout, but occasionally suffers from some heavy age-related artifacts that, at times, distract. A good deal of the image seems more softly focused than it ought and film grain waffles between being practically nonexistent to succumbing to an artificially digitized look. Again, on smaller monitors these effects are barely noticeable.  We must also contend with ever so slight hints of gate weave, jerking the image from side to side. Again, it never gets to egregious levels, but it is present and accounted for. In this age of digital fixes, it ought not to have been an issue. Nevertheless, the performances herein shine through the occasionally sloppy mastering efforts. The audio fares better – mono as originally recorded, clean and well placed with solid clarity and only a modicum of intermittent hiss heard only during the briefest quiescent moments.  Extras are the biggest disappointment; two vintage short subjects and a badly worn trailer. At the bare minimum, this one rates an audio commentary. Bottom line: Kings Row is an undermined gem in the Warner canon. Warner’s present policy regarding classics to hi-def seems to negate the possibility this deep catalog classy classic will ever see the light of day via their mainstream video apparatus. But WAC might find a place for it. If we can get careworn ole chestnuts like 1943’s Thank Your Lucky Stars on Blu-ray, there is reason to hope more worthy classics like Kings Row cannot be far behind! Good solid entertainment like Kings Row is exceptionally hard to come by. Enjoy it now in its present ‘imperfect’ condition and pray for better things in the future.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, October 8, 2015

GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (MGM 1939) Warner Archive Collection

Labeling most any movie “the best picture of ‘any’ year!” would normally suggest a marketer’s penchant for extreme hyperbole. I have read the back jackets of far too many contemporary DVD and Blu-ray releases declaring their products “an instant classic” or “the greatest of all time” in their particular genre. Frankly, such gushing praise at the time of ‘any’ movie’s theatrical debut does all movies a grave disservice.  Such nonsense is essentially a testament to clever PR and/or some very bad writing by critics, pompous enough to believe they alone can assess ‘greatness’ at a whim, whistle and arrogant wave of their pen. How gauche! Occasionally, however, time proves the rarest of exceptions to this rule. Case in point: Sam Wood’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939); just one of the outstanding screen achievements from that golden epoch in Hollywood’s folklore.
It goes without saying, 1939 holds a hallowed place in cinema history; that ancient flower almost impossible to fathom; a scant twelve months telescoping nearly two decades of technical and artistic evolution in the medium, bringing forth a multitude of bona fide classics – each an archetype in its genre. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is no better than its competition from this year – which is saying a great deal about its superb craftsmanship both in front of and behind the camera. Based on the novella by famed author, James Hilton, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the byproduct of an ambitious intercontinental venture, spun nearly a year before its premiere by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s raja, Louis B. Mayer; an Anglo-American détente, presumably, a means to sell American stars to international audiences in British-made pictures. For the briefest wrinkle in time, the audacity of this intrusion by the Yanks into England’s already well-established picture-making business clicked as it should; though at the outbreak of WWII, MGM would all but abandon their ambitions abroad; after the war, leasing their facilities to other studios at a premium.  
It is safe to assume that without the war, Hollywood’s wellspring of talent – both in front of and behind the camera – would have lacked a good many riches we have long since taken for granted as part of the American film-making landscape; Europe’s mass exodus of creatives, made exiles to escape Nazism in Europe, decidedly Hollywood’s gain. In all likelihood, western audiences would have never known the shimmering miracles put forth by such artists as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. Hollywood’s British colony alone included such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Basil Rathbone, Alec Guinness, Rex Harrison, David Niven, Elizabeth Taylor, Ronald Colman, Roddy McDowell, David Lean, Angela Lansbury and Donald Crisp – to name but a handful. Two more ‘imports’ from this period, destined to make their splash in American movies were Robert Donat and Greer Garson. While Garson would go on to have a prolific career as the cultured Irish lass in countlessly memorable MGM pictures throughout the 1940’s and beyond (Pride and Prejudice, Random Harvest, Mrs. Parkington, The Valley of Decision, and, the Oscar-winning Mrs. Miniver among them), Robert Donat’s enduring legacy – at least as far as American audiences are concerned – can be exclusively tied to this affectingly tragic performance as Charles Edward Chipping; the lonely Latin Classics master of Brookfield School.     
Goodbye Mr. Chips is a practically perfect entertainment, held together by Robert Donat's impervious central performance. Herein, he convincingly ages from a youthful twenty-five to whiskery seventy-eight with superb make-up applications. Yet, latex applications, skull caps and spirit gum will only get you so far. What truly sells the metamorphosis is Donat’s subtly nuanced intonations; his expert timing too, and, his believability. This never wanes or falters. To witness Donat in any of these many stages in Chips' life is to experience the true art and craftsmanship of a very fine thespian at work. Even knowing it is Donat we are seeing from start to finish, it remains almost impossible to accept the same actor encompassing all these variations within a scant 114 minutes. In a year virtually dominated by accolades and plaudits afforded David O. Selznick’s Gone With the Wind, Donat’s portrayal of Chips trumped Gable's Rhett Butler to win the Best Actor Academy Award. In 1939, Donat’s ascendance to the podium was perhaps eased by the fact he was a virtual unknown to Americans. It’s always easier to buy into ‘the truth’ of a performance before the lure and/or curse of stardom has taken hold. It is also a lot riskier for a movie to garner critical praise and box office popularity without the magnetic pull of a ‘name’ above the title. Yet, this should neither dismiss nor discount the incredible verisimilitude Donat has wrought on the screen. His Chips is every bit as enduringly heartbreaking, yet filled with a gentlemanly grace and exquisitely retiring zest for life, repeatedly denied any lasting happiness by the hands of fate.
It has always struck me as more than a little ironic how often the most memorable of movie-land heroes have often lacked great brawn or exist in absence of the most harrowing deeds, emerging as the common and unassuming among the greatest of stars. In retrospect, it remains a tie which of these polar opposites has left us more spellbound in the dark: the Sergeant Yorks, Atticus Finches, George Baileys and Elwood P. Dowds of the silver screen – casting their giant shadows. From an anthropological perspective, I suspect it has something to do with the notion we all may not see a mirror image in paragons as he-men like Clark Gable, Marlon Brando or Errol Flynn, but find flashes of ourselves imbedded in the likes of a James Stewart or Gregory Peck. Whatever the reason, Robert Donat is perhaps the slightest among these aforementioned monuments – a diminutive Englishman with a common brow and unprepossessing physical features; in hindsight, the perfect star to embody Charles Edward Chipping.
Donat’s greatest achievement in Goodbye, Mr. Chips is that he breaks our hearts seemingly almost by accident. He shows us a life, not as perfectly concocted for the movies, but frequently sad, little and disappointing. Donat’s best moments in the picture are encapsulated by the most sorrowful lows in the screenplay; the way he raises or lowers a furry eyebrow just so, revealing a subtler gaze of abject bewilderment at having lost both his wife and stillborn son during childbirth, or his timid body language, emanating wounded disappointment when repeatedly denied the school-sanctioned promotions that rightfully ought to have gone to him, or, in the final reel, his seemingly pleasant acquiescence to death at the tender age of ninety-eight, dreamily slipping into a painterly reminiscence of all those generations of young lads his own life’s experiences have helped to mold. It might have all become so easily maudlin and/or contrite without the right actor in the part. Instead, Donat’s artistry presents us with a ‘Chips’ none of us want to say goodbye to; emblematic of the man to whom most any young boy would proudly boasted to call upon as friend, mentor and surrogate father-figure.  
L.B. Mayer likely considered Goodbye, Mr. Chips more prudently marketable in Europe where Donat already had cache as a leading man on both the stage and screen.  Mostly thanks to Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935), Donat had a modicum of notoriety on this side of the Atlantic. Greer Garson, on the other hand, was a virtual unknown, though yet again, one of the rarest and most satisfying discoveries Mayer would ever lay claim to as a ‘star maker’ to add to his formidable roster of talents back home. So the legend goes – Mayer had come to London in 1938 on a routine goodwill tour, to finalize a slate of projects at his fledgling MGM-British Studios; also, to scout a few promising ‘new’ West End properties to make into movies. While staying at the Dorchester, Mayer elected to get tickets for the play, ‘Old Music’.
Assuming it a musical - a genre Mayer adored - he was instead bitterly disappointed when ‘Old Music’ turned out to be metaphorical for a creaky ole melodrama. Mayer hated it. However, possessing a keen eye for talent, almost immediately he took an interest in the play’s bright-eyed and henna-haired ingénue, Greer Garson. Hurrying backstage after the performance to introduce himself tand ask the young lady to supper, Garson astutely brought along her mother to chaperone the evening. Ever the uber-conservative, Mayer liked girls who liked their mothers. Within the hour, a contract was signed, Garson agreeing to appear in Goodbye, Mr. Chips in the modest part as Katherine. Effectively, she almost stole the show. Without question or guile, she broke everyone’s heart with her rewarding tenor of genteel Irish wit and charisma.  Garson could be counted upon to affect this air in later pictures with varying degrees of success. Yet properly placed in a Tiffany setting like Katherine Chipping, Garson is nothing short of miraculous; lilting to the strains of an Austrian waltz, ebulliently letting out the champagne bubbles of an exuberant little laugh that continues to echo through the Alps as she tells Edward he is ‘nice’ after being stranded on a mountain top for several hours with him in a dense fog, or affectionately lying at his feet in their living room after they are married, gazing with adoring sincerity as she quietly admits, “My darling, you’re a very real person and a very human person. Don’t ever be afraid, Chips. There’s nothing you can’t do.”
Goodbye, Mr. Chips would also tap into Mayer’s affinity for telling stories that mythologized and romanticized a particular way of life, fast fading into the sunset of history. America’s affinity for Britain, particularly during the war, generally leaned towards glowing portraits of that unconquerable English stoicism; its unabated pride for remaining steadfast and truer still to its time-honored principles and traditions, and its imperishable faith in the common good of humanity, despite being repeatedly tested by darker forces looming on the horizon of a European hemisphere in flames. Quietly setting aside Britain’s own checkered history, often bloodthirsty in its ‘nation-building’ conquests, American movies instead presented our far-away cousins as quaintly superior, ruled by decorum, propriety and goodness, occasionally stuffy, but always as a more refined extension of America’s own big-hearted and sentimentalized prospects for the future.
It served the fantasy well that many movies supposedly set in England were actually shot on Metro’s own studio backlot in sunny Culver City, their air of fog-laden authenticity a complete fabrication from the ground up. Goodbye, Mr. Chips is, in fact, a regression into England’s nation-building era, with only a twinge of suggestion its classism and congeniality are at an end. Goodbye, Mr. Chips stops short of growing cynical about what the future may bring. Indeed, in 1939, with Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland already a fait accompli, such potentials for a brighter tomorrow – whether pitched on either side of the Atlantic – similarly, if not perfectly, marked an alignment between two nations – America and the United Kingdom, the two, destined to jointly procure a policy for peace by the end of the Second World War.
After an exuberant main title, set to the impeccably academic strains of Richard Addinsell and Eric Maschwitz’ Brookfield School Song, Goodbye Mr. Chips begins in 1928 with Edward Charles Chipping, a spry eighty-three. Ordered by his physician to abstain from commencement exercises for the first time in his entire career to stave off a cold, Chips instead defies doctor’s orders, scurrying in cap and gown toward the chapel. He encounters a new student who is also late, the pair locked out. Chips listens intently to the school’s anthem; the cherub-faced newbee regarding him with casual amusement as a very old man. Afterward, the established students are elated to have Chips in their presence. By now, he has become far more than just a beloved school mascot.  Returning to his home on the outskirts of Brookfield Academy, Chips is attended to by his stodgy housekeeper, Mrs. Wickett (Louise Hampton). Ordering the woman to ‘go about her loathsome statistics’, Chips reclines in his easy chair next to the fireplace and quietly slips into his daydreams.
We regress to Charles Edward Chipping, aged twenty-five; an ambitious young man on his nervous journey by train to begin his career as a Latin Classics instructor. The train is populated by several boys also bound for Brookfield, including young, John Colley (Terry Kilburn, who will play all but one of his future relatives, attending the school). The boys’ exuberance at the sight of a hot air balloon causes mild pandemonium for all except one lad, who sits with his head down, quietly homesick and isolated in the corner. In attempting to comfort the child, Chips inadvertently causes him to burst into tears. The others assume Edward has either struck the boy or said something mean-spirited, causing a pall to settle in for the rest of their journey. Arriving at Brookfield on the first day’s commencement, Edward is befriended by German Classics professor, Max Staefel (Paul Henried). Noting Edward’s nervousness, the other academics playfully goad him about the blood sport first year students engage in with newly arrived educators. Indeed, Edward is in for a rough time. On the first day’s lessons, he enters his classroom only to have his graduation cap knocked from his head by a trip cord; the pupils exuberantly kicking it about the floor until John Colley ‘rescues’ it; further beating the crooked rim against his knee – presumably, to clean the dust from it.
The boys’ pranks continue. They ask Edward loaded questions, such as ‘who was Cadiz?’ to which Edward – taking the boys at face value – begrudgingly exclaims, “Cadiz is a town in Spain!” Now, the classroom erupts into sheer bedlam, the noise level bringing Brookfield’s outwardly gruff Head Master, Wetherby (Lyn Harding) into their midst. After he has settled Edward’s class, Wetherby asks for a quiet meeting in his office. He informs Edward the rigors of a school master are not for everyone; furthermore, what he has seen today constitutes a very bad start from which it will be difficult – if not impossible – for Edward to recover. In his defense, Edward promises no further outbursts. In pressing the point, he makes an almost fatal error; confining the school’s best rugby player to detention, along with the rest of the boys, during a crucial match with rivals from Sedgewick Academy.  The game lost, Edward confides in his boys he has overstepped his boundaries, adding “If I have lost your respect, there is little else that I value.”
Time heals most of these initial wounds and, as the years pass, Edward does marginally gain the respect of his students, although, without the necessary warmth of spirit to make his tenure at the school anything more than a meaningless profession. Asked by Staefel of his plans for summer holidays, Edward suggests he will retire to Harrowgate for relaxation. Instead, Staefel commands Edward accompany him on a walking tour of his native Austria. Their sojourn will prove fortuitous in unexpected ways. For on only their second day’s crossing, the men are introduced to Katherine Ellis, a feisty English suffragette, and her rather mannish travelling companion, Flora (Judith Furse). The ladies are headed to Vienna, with a stopover at a Bavarian retreat in the Alps. As fate would have it, Edward and Staefel stay at the same inn; Edward getting lost in the fog while climbing the mountain. Calling out for help, he is confronted by Kathy’s gentle voice and spends most of the afternoon and early evening in her care on a mountain’s ledge. The two are acquainted socially, and Edward confides, “I’m terrified of ladies.” “Because I’m a strong-minded female who rides a bicycle and wants the vote?” she asks, to which Edward honestly confesses, “Oh, no. Because you’re so very nice-looking.” Amused by the sincerity of his response, Kathy adds, “Frankly, Mr. Chipping – so are you.”
Returning to the inn together moments before Staefel and Flora are about to commence with a search party, Edward is declared the hero of the Alps. Embarrassed by all the undue praise, Edward sheepishly retreats to his room rather than stay and celebrate their return. Flora is mildly put off by Edward’s overt shyness, but Kathy defends him, saying “I rather feel sorry for shy people…because they’re lonely too”, quite unaware Edward has overheard their entire conversation from his balcony. Travelling with Staefel via a steamer down the Blue Danube, Edward can talk of nothing but the hours he spent with Miss Kathy in the Alps. Staefel quietly acknowledges the lasting impression the girl has made on his travelling companion; both men innocent of the fact Flora and Kathy are also aboard. Later, in a resplendent ballroom, romantically lit by candlelight, an orchestra serenading patrons to the tune of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz, Edward and Kathy are reintroduced. She tempts him to ask her to dance. At first, he suggests being ill-equipped to carry out the task, but prodded by his own persistent resolve to break free from his shyness, Edward eventually works up the guts to accept the wager. The couple spends the rest of the evening swirling to the strains of waltzes, the scene dissolving to a parting of the ways at Vienna’s railway depot the next morning. At the last possible moment, as the train is pulling away with Kathy and Flora aboard, Edward throws caution to the wind, with an impromptu proposal of marriage. She blissfully accepts before a cloud of steam envelopes the platform and parts the lovers. Staefel laughingly reveals to Edward that both he and Flora have known about their whirlwind romance for quite some time; Flora having already picked out the church and Staefel given her their contact information to make ready the couple’s marriage plans.
At the start of the new semester, Edward shocks his contemporaries by returning to Brookfield with a new bride on his arm. Instantly enamored by Kathy’s forthright disposition and graceful charm, Edward takes notice how both his colleagues and students treat him differently because of her warmth towards them.  After Brookfield elects to appoint Edward to his own house, Kathy institutes frequent ‘parties’ for the boys, building a solid relationship between them and her husband. She nicknames him, ‘Chips’ of Brookfield; a moniker destined to stick for the rest of his days. Kathy tells her husband he must allow the barriers he has placed between him and his pupils to slip just a little, in order to become more than simply their educator; indeed, to be a trusted friend and father-figure to all ‘his boys’. A short while later, Kathy discovers she will soon bear Chips a son. Alas, the birth is difficult, and proves fatal for both mother and child; Chips returning to his classroom, shell-shocked and heartbroken after receiving the news, only to have a prank perpetuated by his students, who have yet to learn of his loss. Peter Colley II bursts into the classroom, quietly spreading the word Miss Kathy has died. A pall settles in; the boys intimately sharing in Chips’ grief.
Time passes.  And while Chips grows more beloved by his pupils, evolving into a cornerstone of the academy, time itself has not diminished his great sadness.  Wetherby’s death results in the appointment of a new Head Master, Chatteris (Milton Rosmer), who informs Chips the old ways are dying and must be updated to conform to the ‘new’ academic standards. Chips fights this indignation, the suggestion he is out of fashion – and therefore, by extension, obsolete – hardly considered worth debating, except to lambaste Chatteris as a ‘progressive’ who does not appreciate what traditions and principles mean to the moral foundation of any young man’s life. The school’s board of trustees takes Chips’ side in the matter. Moreover, his pupils rally to his aid. As far as they are concerned, Chips can stay on until he is 100. Alas, time does not stand still for any man, and in 1914, Chips chooses retirement at the age of sixty-nine. After an absence of some years, he becomes reacquainted with former student, Peter Colley (now played as a dashing army sergeant by John Mills). Peter asks Chips to look in on his young wife, Helen (Jill Furse) as she is expecting their first child, even as he is being called to the front to fight the Germans in WWI. Chips obliges this request and is pleasantly surprised to learn Brookfield has recalled him as their Head Master, as every available man of fighting age has been sent to partake in the war.
Chips accepts the challenge of keeping the school organized and vital during these trying times, dealing with a belligerent elder student by caning his backside, but then diplomatically explaining the grave situation facing both Brookfield’s graduating class and the nation at large. The war exacts its pound of flesh, Chips adding Max Staefel’s name to the fallen – Staefel having returned home to fight for the Kaiser and dying as an enemy on the field of battle. But the most disheartening loss is Peter Colley, reading his name on the roll call of killed in action quietly bringing Chips to the brink of tears. A short while later, Chips receives a cablegram; some good news for a change. Armistice has been declared. The war is over. At parade’s end in 1918, Chips relinquishes his title as Brookfield’s Head Master, happily so, and retreats into peaceful retirement.  Once again, the years pass. We advance to 1933, Chips awakening from his slumber to entertain a new arrival, goaded by his peers to play a practical joke on Chips. Instead, Chips invites the boy in for some tea and cake. The intimacy shared in their conversation about childhood anxieties and lifelong camaraderie yet to follow, quaintly reminds Chips of the years when Kathy strove to make his home a bastion for his students to confide in him.
After the boy leaves, the memories flood in and haunt Chips to distraction. A short while later he is confined to bed, a withered old man about to die.  However, as he slips in and out of consciousness, he overhears several of his newer colleagues discussing what a pity it is he never married or had any children of his own. In reply, Chips murmurs, “But you’re wrong. I have. Thousands of them…and all boys.” As Chips closes his eyes, presumably for the last time, a collage of faces pass before the camera with the strains of Brookfield’s school song proudly echoing; all the boys and young men whose lives Chips has helped to impact – indeed, the veritable promises for a brighter tomorrow pass before him – the last in line, young, Peter Colley, who affectionately turns, smiles, and sweetly delivers the penultimate line of farewell, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips…goodbye.”   
Goodbye Mr. Chips was begun under the aegis of the late, Irving G. Thalberg; MGM’s wunderkind producer with a peerless track record for creating starry-eyed magic from a good many literary properties that L.B. Mayer often disliked – not so much for their content – rather, because they cost so much to produce. In some ways, Mayer’s decision to ‘streamline’ Metro’s output after Thalberg’s untimely passing did much to equally homogenize their appeal. While MGM movies of the 1930’s could be counted upon to positively reek of uber-wealth and glamor, the lighter confections of the forties would come to symbolize Mayer’s affinity for homespun family films – not terribly prepossessing, though nevertheless equally as popular with audiences.  In some ways, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is the last of Thalberg’s artistic triumphs, director, Sam Wood (along with producer, Victor Saville, Sidney Franklin, and, screenwriters, R.C. Sherriff, Claudine West, Eric Maschwitz) paying tribute to the man who, in life never afforded himself any screen credit for guiding MGM onto such artistic heights, in a title card reading, “We wish to acknowledge here our gratitude to the late Irving Thalberg, whose inspiration illuminates the picture of ‘Goodbye, Mr. Chips.”  Indeed, the legendary mogul had left behind an indelible mark as a peerless showman, his visions perfectly preserved for the ages.
I am going to champion the Warner Archive (WAC) to get off its lump and remaster Goodbye, Mr. Chips for Blu-ray. Without question, it is one of the most deserving deep catalog titles currently under their distribution umbrella. Warner Home Video’s old cardboard insert DVD has been replaced by a Warner Archive MOD DVD, the results looking pretty much the same and nothing terribly thrilling to shout about. While the gray scale is generally impressive, the original elements are in a desperate need of clean-up and repair. Age-related artifacts are everywhere and, at times, thoroughly distracting. Film grain has been preserved, but during several scenes, it appears slightly digitized rather than indigenous to its source. Also, I am not loving the odd moment or two of shimmering, edge enhancement and pixelization. While the aforementioned mastering anomalies are slight, they are nevertheless glaringly obvious and distract from one’s enjoyment. Also, contrast levels are a tad less that resilient and deep. Overall, the image is passable, but it is about time Goodbye, Mr. Chips made its way to hi-def. So, WAC, the gauntlet has been thrown down…please.  We could also use a refurbished audio. I am not one to ridiculously press for a 5.1 remix. Original mono is just fine, but again, please – without the annoying hiss and pop that plagues quiescent scenes throughout this transfer. Extras are the other disappointment. There are none! Not even a theatrical trailer! For shame! Bottom line: Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a golden entertainment from a year as perfect as movies get. It deserves far better on home video than this. Here’s to hoping it gets its just desserts in a future not too distant.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

THE HARVEY GIRLS (MGM 1946) Warner Home Video

“Don't try to be different. Just be good. To be good is different enough.”
-        Arthur Freed
In a period of roughly 2 ½ years, MGM producer, Arthur Freed made five movies in rapid succession; each, a unique contribution to the studio’s canon of popular entertainments; four, musicals; one of them – George Sidney’s The Harvey Girls (1946); a property initially begun as a ‘serious’ drama, starring Lana Turner. Producer, Bernard Hyman had grafted onto an as yet unpublished story by Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin; also, optioning the book, ‘The Harvey Girls’, written by Samuel Hopkins Adams. Like Arthur Freed, Hyman was an untouchable at the studio. Had death not unexpectedly claimed him at the age of 45, Hyman might have had his way with The Harvey Girls – an ironic ‘blessing’ that he did not. However, in lieu of his passing, the property fell into limbo almost immediately – although, not for long. The western milieu had proven a good venue for Lana Turner. In fact, Metro’s reigning sexpot had made a noteworthy splash opposite Clark Gable in the film, Honky Tonk five years earlier. But in the spring of 1943, Freed would attend the New Haven premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!; an experience ultimately destined to propel his creative verve on to an original ‘western-themed’ musical extravaganza in its stead.  In its heyday, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had great success in creating original properties for the screen. Under Arthur Freed’s tutelage, the musical genre, in particular, experienced a miraculous renaissance. And L.B. Mayer, whose sentiments and tastes were closely aligned with Freed, simply doted on the man and what would eventually became known around Metro’s backlot as ‘the Freed Unit’; affording Arthur unprecedented autonomy to pursue and develop virtually any project he desired.
Despite the passage of time, changing tastes, and its absence from public view for many a good – and not so good – year, The Harvey Girls has lost none of its bright-eyed optimism and exuberance for wide open spaces or its intimate charm, chiefly supplied by its star – Judy Garland. Above all else, it is Garland’s intangible star presence that sells the picture as splendid entertainment par excellence; her inimitable blend of comedic/fiery temperament and/or dewy-eyed romantic fragileness compels us on to the film’s other myriad of treasures (and there are many more, as yet to be discussed herein). Ironically, Judy had expressed interest in another project simultaneously being prepared by Freed – Yolanda and the Thief. She was persuaded by Arthur to partake in The Harvey Girls instead. Perhaps, it was Judy’s inability to recognize her own extraordinariness that resulted in her bouts of depression and addictions to various studio-sanctioned prescription drugs to see her through the day. Miraculously, these demons never materialized on the screen; Garland – ever the peerless professional – wringing out her enactments with exacting precision, in spite of her crippling anxieties.  “The thing about Judy,” husband, Vincente Minnelli once said, “…is that she would keep you waiting – not out of spite or simply because she could – because she was a star – but rather because you could see how much it was taking out of her to give it her all. You could tell her twenty things…and you never knew if you were getting through to her, because people were messing with her hair and wardrobe and so forth…but, by God when she came on the set she came there to work…she wouldn’t miss a thing.”  
In preparing The Harvey Girls, Freed was marginally hamstrung by the estate of the late, Fred Harvey. The Harvey family, via Fred’s son, Byron and grandson (also named Byron) had given their blessing while Hyman was still alive, though not their permission to make just any movie based on their popularized restaurant chain, unless of course, it conformed to their standards of artistic integrity. In America then, the reputation of the Harvey House franchise was sacred. Indeed, it had all but entered the popular lexicon as bona fide legend; begun by Fred Harvey in 1876 in Topeka, Kansas and thereafter spreading across the nation’s landscape like fire on a wheat field. In developing The Harvey Girls, Freed turned to Metro’s seemingly bottomless well of writers, engaging Guy Bolton, Edmund Beloin, Nathaniel Curtis, James O’Hanlon, Kay Van Riper, Samson Raphaelson, Harry Crane and Hagar Wilde to work on the screenplay. Ultimately, all of the aforementioned, except Bolton, would leave their mark on the final draft. But perhaps Freed’s most fortuitous decision during preproduction was to assign Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer to write the score. Warren and Mercer had collaborated on several memorable musicals over at Warner Bros., their cache in working together, destined for some very great things on The Harvey Girls – not the least, their Oscar-winning and infectiously hummable, ‘On The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’. Freed knew he had a good thing going. Nevertheless, he was advised by MGM’s international copyright agent, Rudi Monta to rely on Loew’s New York legal representative, William A. Orr to secure the Harvey family’s necessary releases. 
Freed assigned Roger Edens the weighty task of tying together these disparate contributions on the picture. Reportedly, Freed ‘discovered’ Edens while auditioning a nondescript chanteuse for a friend during which Edens played backup accompaniment on the piano. When the audition was over, Freed bluntly replied, “The girl’s okay but I really would like to hire the piano player.” Edens had, in fact, already established a reputation as a composer/arranger for Ethel Merman in 1932, so part – if not all of this story – may, in fact, be apocryphal. In any case, by the time Freed was preparing The Harvey Girls, Edens had become an indispensable part of the Freed Unit. Armed with a first draft screenplay and Warren and Mercer’s score, Edens flew to Chicago to meet with the Harveys and their right-hand, Harold Belt. In his inimitable fashion, he spent a cozy afternoon pleading Freed’s case, followed by a complete reenactment of the entire script and songs, at the end of which the family’s concerns were completely laid to rest.
Receiving a cablegram from Edens in Culver City, Freed dove headstrong into casting the picture. From the onset, he always had Judy Garland in mind as its star.  But as Freed’s first choice to play the part of Em, the madam of the Alhambra, Ann Sothern, proved unavailable, he fell back on an admirable second choice – Angela Lansbury who, at the tender age of 21, nevertheless managed to pull off the persona of a glamorous and worldly woman twice her years. The picture’s romantic lead, John Hodiak could not sing a note, an oversight averted when it was decided even Hodiak’s few warbled bars of ‘My Intuition’ – a romantic duet with Garland - would remain on the cutting room floor (along with the rest of the song). Freed topped off the picture with a formidable roster of talent: Ray Bolger (as the dandified farrier, Chris Maule), Chill Wills (lovable lush, H.H. Hartsey), Marjorie Main (Sonora Cassidy, a very rambunctious Harvey House cook), Kenny Baker (in the rather thankless part of second string romantic interest and saloon piano player, Terry O'Halloran), Virginia O’Brien (as Alma from Ohio -  a deadpan gal with the gall to call a spade a spade and get away with it), Selena Royale (as Harvey House chaperone, Miss Bliss) and Preston Foster (the spurious Judge Sam Purvis). In hindsight, The Harvey Girls would also be notable for dancer, Cyd Charisse’s early appearance as the toe-shoe loving, Deborah Andrews.
The Harvey Girls today is not as renowned as some of Arthur Freed’s other movie musicals; not because it lacks either the presence, star-power or immaculate pedigree of say, a Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), The Band Wagon (1950) or even Gigi (1958), but ironically, because it arrived right in the middle of Freed’s most fertile creative period at MGM; seemingly swamped by an embarrassment of artistic riches that have long since conspired to dwarf and minimize its own contributions to this canon. In retrospect, The Harvey Girls is every bit as worthy a contender for such high praise.  To helm the production, Freed turned to director, George Sidney; perhaps, not such an obvious choice, considering the two had had a minor falling out during the first month’s shoot on Ziegfeld Follies (1946) for which Sidney asked to be removed from the picture and was promptly replaced by Freed with Vincente Minnelli. Sidney, one of Metro’s most competent workhorses, effectively managed to wade through the numerous delays on The Harvey Girls while quietly moving the picture along to its successful completion, only slightly over time and marginally over budget. The cause for these delays is mostly attributed to Judy Garland, seemingly unable to work up enough gumption to get to the studio on time or exit her dressing room in a timely fashion once newly arrived.
Unable to find fault with Garland’s performance while she worked (indeed, after a deferral of several hours, Judy burst into the recording booth and sang ‘On The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’ in one uninterrupted and perfect take, ultimately used in the film), and, equally as sympathetic to the fact she was undergoing an exorcism of her own private demons throughout the shoot, Sidney plied his neurotic star with comforts and complements, pleased to note she was pouring every last ounce of energy and effort to ensure his hard work had not been wasted. “With Judy it was never artistic temperament,” Sidney would later admit in an interview, “You could forgive her almost anything, because she was so fragile and so committed to doing her best for you once she had beaten back the personal stuff that was bothering her. Very sad, but she was just brilliant. I don’t mind working with somebody like that.”  
On The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’ is undeniably one of The Harvey Girl’s set pieces; a brilliantly conceived ‘travel’ number at the very start of the picture, introducing us to the character of Susan Bradley (Garland) and her small army of cohorts, soon to be bound for the Harvey House in Sandrock, a little no-nothing of an outpost in the American West. Cinematographer, John Alton tirelessly rehearsed the number for twenty days prior to committing it to celluloid; a series of meticulous camera movements to follow the arriving steam locomotive and railway cars carrying the entire cast into Sandrock’s tiny depot with each of its soon-to-be Harvey girls warbling a line or two about their background and dreams for future adventures. Fred Harvey’s ‘girls’ had been chosen from all over the United States, mostly for their beauty, though also for their strict moral respectability, and then, trained in the art of becoming good waitresses. Freed’s bevy of beauties proved no less equal to this task; at varying degrees, singing about their conjoining pasts with musical bridges interpolated by Roger Edens and his musical collaborator, Kay Thompson.
Two other ‘set’ pieces, the melodic, ‘It’s A Great Big World’ and the whirling waltz, ‘Swing Your Partner Round and Round’ round out The Harvey Girl’s musical repertoire, with novelties and solo songs feathered in for good measure; the singular and, arguably, unforgivable sin being the excision of Garland’s towering performance in ‘March of the Doagies.’ Viewed today, ‘March of the Doagies’ remains a heartbreaking loss, Garland – in outtakes - witnessed at the peak of her powers, carried on waves of love while provoking all of Sandrock to accompany her across the wide open spaces of Chatsworth at midnight; a torch-lit processional ending with Garland’s exuberant, Susan Bradley hoisted high above a roaring bonfire; all of it dramatically lensed by John Alton to absolute perfection. Surviving production memos suggest the number was cut merely for time constraints; The Harvey Girls final cut eventually clocking in at 1 hr. 42 min.
In hindsight, The Harvey Girls is such a perfect movie musical, one is apt to forget, that like most any well-conceived and finely executed spectacle, this one too was not entirely without its setbacks and most decidedly the net result of meticulous behind-the-scenes planning. Predictably, the first day’s shoot did not go according to plan. As the company gathered to photograph Susan Bradley’s reunion with John Hodiak’s notorious gambler, Ned Trent, their pas deux set against the starkly picturesque natural splendor of Chatsworth, several ominous clouds settled in, obscuring the sunlight and forcing cinematographer, John Alton to delay.  Somewhere during their mid-afternoon hiatus, news reached the isolated camp that President Franklin Roosevelt had died. For many, the loss was overwhelming. Judy Garland admittedly went to pieces and left the set. George Sidney gathered cast and crew to regale them with the solemn news, after which production was shut down for the day, allowing everyone to regroup their thoughts.  For the next few weeks, the Sandrock Street, built on MGM’s Lot 3 and complete with facades of several dozen buildings, including the Alhambra Saloon and Harvey House (built at a cost of $395,969.40.) became home to cast and crew. The climatic torching of the Harvey House raised a few eyebrows and cause for concern in that the set, while isolated, was nevertheless in the vicinity of others. For safety’s sake, Freed called out Metro’s police and fire departments to standby, just in case a sudden wind cast its pyre of flame in the wrong direction.  On this particular night, Sidney, on a boom, prepared to capture the deluge. Alas, a stuntman disguised as Judy Garland, inadvertently ruined the shot by exposing his knobby knees to the camera. Disheartened, though perhaps more nervously anxious than anything else, Sidney called ‘cut’ – bringing scores of firemen out of hiding to douse the five alarm blaze. The Harvey House, lain in charred ruins, would have to be rebuilt, and, the sequence completed re-staged and re-shot all over again the next night.
Set in the late 1890’s The Harvey Girls opens with an uncharacteristically intimate moment; hopeful mail-order bride, Susan Bradley, clinging to the open back of a caboose, lazily careening back and forth, dreaming of her new life ‘In the Valley’ (Where the Evening Sun Goes Down). Susan has answered a lonely hearts ad, presumably written by H.H. Hartsey. Also aboard the train are Miss Bliss, Sonora Cassidy, Deborah Andrews, Alma from Ohio and the rest of the young women on route to start their new lives as ‘Harvey’ girls. Susan is optimistic – though perhaps, more than a tad ‘unrealistic’ about what the future will hold. With a blast of the conductor’s whistle, everyone arrives in Sandrock ‘On The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’.  Meanwhile, at the Alhambra Saloon, Hartsey – a chronic, though lovable drunk – confides in its proprietor, Ned Trent that ‘his girl’ is newly arrived in town. Ned cannot believe it. He only wrote the mash letter as a joke, never believing Susan would reply, much less follow through and make the trip to this isolated outpost.  Encouraging Hartsey to step down from accepting Susan as his mail-order bride, a decision the commitment-shy Hartsey is only too pleased to accept, Ned intervenes on his behalf and explains the situation to Susan. She is, of course, properly outraged. Ned offers to pay for Susan’s return ticket home. But instead, she takes up Miss Bliss’ offer to become a Harvey girl. Em, the madam of the Alhambra, is not amused. Perhaps even from the outset, her womanly intuition tells her Susan’s arrival will do more than merely distract Ned from his casual romantic overtures toward her.
Ned is visited by Judge Purvis and Rev. Claggett (Morris Ankrum); a pair of acrimonious plotters who, along with thug muscle, Marty Peters (Jack Lambert) aim to do harm to the Harvey House in order to maintain Sandrock’s lawlessness. A hot time in the ole town has proven very profitable for all concerned and Purvis and Claggett expect Ned to play along with their plans to evict the newly arrived lovelies. Ned suggests everyone can coexist in Sandrock – a decision ultimately leading to more than a few botched threats, including a planted rattlesnake in Deborah’s trunkful of belongings; the poisonous attack narrowly averted when Ned puts a bullet through the serpent to save her life. Deborah begins to fall for the Alhambra’s piano player, Terry O’Halloran while Alma latches on to the somewhat effete farrier, Chris Maule. Simultaneously, Susan harbors affections for Ned. He is mildly smitten with Susan too, but repeatedly toys with her affections, incurring both Susan and Em’s ire in tandem. Em wants Susan out of Sandrock - period. But Susan has dug in her heels with renewed confidence, particularly after a gutsy move to rescue her employer, Jed Adams (Edward Earle) and recover raw meats stolen from the Harvey House’s cooler by Purvis and Claggett – hidden in the backroom of the Alhambra, proves a success.
Ned is increasingly delighted by Susan’s resourcefulness. Moreover, he isn’t so far gone as to not be able to recognize how virtue alone can, in fact, be its own reward. Naturally, Purvis and Claggett do not share this sentiment. Em, however, is sympathetic as, at least in her own way, she deeply cares for Ned, and, would sincerely hope her love is enough to convince him to remain at her side. Alas, after Purvis and Peters sneak into the Harvey House, determined to burn it to the ground, Ned attacks them in a knock-down/drag-out brawl. The Harvey House is lost to the hellish flames. But the girls escape unharmed and with a renewed vigor to rebuild the restaurant. The next day, Ned gives over the Alhambra to be used as a makeshift Harvey House. He packs his bags and prepares to leave with Em and her prostitutes for another outpost further down the line where lawlessness still prevails. But even Ned knows these days are numbered.  Thus, at the last possible moment, he has a change of heart. Susan’s goodness, it seems, has poisoned his blood. He will remain in Sandrock and propose marriage to her, if she will have him. Em is bitterly disappointed, masking her sadness with a glib “Thanks…thanks for nothin’!” as the train pulls out of the depot.
But only a few moments later, Em realizes Susan is also on board, having erroneously assumed Ned is too. Susan confides in Em. She has decided to ‘join’ Em’s lot in life to please Ned. Em is sincerely touched by the depths of Susan’s love in this noble gesture, pulling on the emergency cord to stop the train; wrestling with Susan until she explains Ned is not travelling with them. Em and Susan share a moment in understanding: one woman’s loss, decidedly the other’s gain. Susan departs and meets Ned, who, presumably having discovered she is on the train is presently speeding towards it on horseback. As Em looks on, Susan and Ned are reunited on the rocky plains, tripping over the foliage and falling to the ground (a running gag throughout the movie, symbolic of their similarities as the ‘perfect couple’). The scene dissolves to Ned and Susan’s staged ‘outdoor’ wedding – actually shot on a rather obvious MGM stage bound replica of the Chatsworth landscape; the bridal party singing a reprise of the Oscar-winning ‘On The Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’. 
The Harvey Girls is a joyous MGM musical, exuberantly realized from the very first to last frame. Even for its sneak peek on July 12, 1945, the picture had already undergone several deletions; the loss of the aforementioned ‘March of the Doagies’; also, ‘My Intuition’ – a love ballad between Susan and Ned, and ‘Hayride’ – another big and blustery outdoorsy number.  In the audience opening night, young composer, Ralph Blaine (who had worked under Edens’ tutelage on the picture) narrowly averted catastrophe, when a lit cigarette he thought he had extinguished and had inadvertently stuffed into the breast pocket of his dress jacket, suddenly caught fire. Riding high on anxiousness, Blaine and the others in attendance could breathe a sigh of relief when spontaneous applause broke out in the audience after ‘On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe’. From that moment forward, the picture was a smash hit, easily making back its $2,524,315 budget, and topping out with a very lucrative, $5,175,000.  However, its official premiere had to be delayed until January 18, 1946, as virtually all of MGM’s premiere Loew’s Theaters were already pre-booked for the Christmas holidays.          
Warner Home Video’s DVD, one of the earliest endeavors to bring deep catalog classics to light back in 1997, remains one of the studio’s better efforts. In 1993, MGM/UA Home Video had released a chemical ‘restoration’ of The Harvey Girls to LaserDisc with conflicting results. For starters, a few scenes were plagued by mis-registration of the original 3-strip Technicolor negatives, equally suffering from differential shrinkage and resulting in annoying halos. For the DVD reissue, some marginal corrections have been performed; although there remains a curious ‘snapping together’ of these mis-aligned records, intermittently perceived whenever a cut occurs. It would be exceedingly prudent of Warner Home Video to hand this one off to WAC for a Blu-ray reissue with the aforementioned shortcomings corrected. Otherwise, it appears as though very little additional clean-up and/or restoration would be required. The Technicolor dye transfer exhibits exceedingly rich and vibrant colors throughout, with accurately rendered flesh tones. A modicum of film grain has been preserved, although occasionally I detect some residual softness in the a few long shots that otherwise might require attention. There is no untoward digital manipulation of the image, however, resulting in a relatively smooth and pleasing transfer that, at least for now, is passably acceptable. The mono soundtrack has been remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital and sparkles with amazing clarity. Better still, extras include two alternate takes of the deleted ‘March of the Doagies’, plus an audio commentary from George Sidney and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: all aboard for Sandrock. The Harvey Girls is an exceptional movie musical – one that needs more exposure to the general public today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)