Sunday, November 30, 2008

IF I'M LUCKY (2oth Century-Fox 1946) Fox Home Video

Lewis Seiler’s If I’m Lucky (1946) is a rather perplexing musical comedy in that it occasionally forgets itself by infusing more than a hint of serious undertone to the otherwise lighthearted proceedings.

The first half of the George Bricker, Robert Ellis, Edwin Lanham, Helen Logan, Snag Werris screenplay plays like a screwball comedy. But the middle portion of the film shifts to a deadly serious story about political corruption. In the final reels, the fluff factor in musical entertainment returns, leaving the darker aspects of the tale unresolved before the final fade out.

The story begins in earnest with talent agent Wallingham ‘Wally’ Jones (Phil Silvers) wiring his dispersed band of musicians and singers back into the fold with the promise of a theatrical gig. Wally is sincere, but the promise turns sour almost from the moment his telegrams have been sent.

When the troop of entertainers, including band leader Earl Gordon (Harry James) and singers Linda Farrell (Vivian Blaine) and Michelle O’Toole (Carmen Miranda) arrive, they discover that they’ve all given up steady paying jobs for the benefit of being unemployed yet again. A reprieve, however, is not far off.

Crashing the campaign of political hack, Darius J. Magonnagle (Edgar Buchanan) for the price of a free weenie and soda, Wally and his troop decide to resurrect Darius’ chances of having his campaign speech heard by entertaining the other freeloaders who have simply come to eat Magonnagles’ food and bolt out the front door.

The rouse works. The freeloaders stay and Magonnagles becomes a hit with his constituents. One problem: Magonnagles is actually a no good rummy and a stooge for Marc Dwyer (Frank Fenton); a fat cat invisible puppet master whose only interest in seeing Magonnagles made state governor is to also see that his own graft keeps flowing under the radar of voters after the next election. Meanwhile, Magonnagles latches onto the idea of taking Wally and his troop on the road to spread his message through their entertainment.

The dividends pay off for all concerned. However, when Dwyer takes notice of a new find by the troop – winsome crooner, Allen Clark (Perry Como), he decides that Magonnagles is expendable. Dwyer shifts his clout from Magonnagles to Clark who accepts the invitation, believing that he has been chosen because his late father was a great man who did great things for the state.

However, when Allen realizes that he will be expected to bend to the will of Dwyer’s political machine or risk being run out of town along with the rest of Wally’s gang, Allen does the only thing he can to save both his face and their careers; he exposes Dwyer and his cohorts for the pack of frauds that they are.

With so much talent on tap it’s somewhat ironic that not all of it gets exploited to the fullest potential. Apart from one utterly spellbinding production number, ‘The Bacuda’, Carmen Miranda is utterly wasted on this outing. Furthermore, although the B&W photography is fine – even stunning at times – there is something to be said about Miranda being tailor made for the Technicolor screen. So too does comedian Phil Silvers get pushed aside after the first few reels in favor of shifting the film’s focus on an exposé and critique of American politics.

That would be fine and dandy if If I’m Lucky were a melodramatic offering about political posturing as, say ‘Mr. Smith Goes To Washington’, ‘All The King’s Men’ or ‘Advise and Consent.’ It's not! This is supposed to be a musical; one that all but forgets as much midway through, before returning to more lighthearted and tragically misguided fare for the final fade out.

Vivian Blaine and Perry Como make for a winning combination, but their musical repertoire is depressingly limited to rehashing the title song ‘If I’m Lucky’ until we, as the audience, come to believe we would be even luckier if someone had written more songs for them to sing. In the final analysis, If I’m Lucky is an anomaly to the careers of everyone involved in its production. It’s a musical – in part; a melodrama – in part; but a rather convoluted mess as a whole.

Fox Home Video’s DVD exhibits a rather stunning, if inconsistently rendered, image. The tonality throughout this B&W feast is superbly rendered. However, there are portions of the film which appear to have been sourced from less than the original camera negative. These portions are grainier than the rest of the film with more obvious age related artifacts present.

Worse, the image tends to wobble on occasion, inviting more than a hint of edge enhancement to disturb fine details. The audio is presented in both re-channeled stereo and original mono. Extras include an excerpt from ‘Sing With The Stars’ featuring Carmen Miranda, an isolated score track, stills gallery and the original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
2.5

Saturday, November 29, 2008

GREENWICH VILLAGE (2oth Century-Fox 1944) Fox Home Video

Walter Lang’s Greenwich Village (1944) is a delightfully obtuse musical extravaganza, aided and abetted by a truly inspired performance from Carmen Miranda, garishly photographed in eye-popping Technicolor. If nothing else, the film proves a universal; that Miranda is one of those rare movie treasures whose sheer presence on celluloid is enough to make anyone sit up and take notice.

Set in New York’s famed hot spot for low brow entertainment circa 1922, the story concocted by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan is supposed to be a conventional lover’s triangle between nightclub proprietor Danny O’Mara (William Bendix), symphonic composer, Kenneth Harvey (Don Ameche) and aspiring pop chanteuse, Bonnie Watson (Vivian Blaine).

Instead, the film quite easily becomes a showcase for the Brazilian bombshell, cast as fortune teller Princess Querida. Miranda cavorts in some utterly outrageous musical sequences while chewing up the scenery elsewhere as she runs amuck with her usual fracturing of the English language.

When first we meet Kenneth, he is a struggling composer, easily horns-waggled out of his money by the conspiring Querida and O’Mara, who need his money to launch their theatrical show. Mistakenly, Querida assumes that Kenneth’s wallet full of tens and twenties means that he is a millionaire when, in fact, Kenneth is actually a former college professor who has cashed out his entire life savings to set himself up in the Bohemian enclave and become a true artist.

Meanwhile, Kenneth falls in love with nightclub singer, Bonnie Watson who just happens to be O’Mara’s girl. Not that she shares O’Mara’s affections. Although Bonnie is grateful to O’Mara for his interests in her as a singer, Bonnie’s heart quickly falls for Kenneth, especially when O’Mara promises Kenneth that he will secure an audition with the eminent composer, Kavosky (Emil Rameau). In truth, O’Mara needs Kenneth to write the score for his show and has no interest in helping him succeed as a serious composer.

However, when Kenneth is double-crossed by a struggling violinist, Hofer (Felix Bressart) – who takes his money and attempts to escape – O’Mara comes to Kenneth’s rescue, apprehending Hofer to save his show and, inadvertently getting Kavosky to hear Kenneth’s score for that show; actually, the high brow symphony Kenneth had been toiling on since he moved to Greenwich Village.

The songs in this lavishly appointed musical romp are the least memorable part of this story, but that doesn’t stop the bombastic Carmen Miranda from excelling at elevating the rather conventional material to new heights of bizarre and exotic bliss. Though Blaine gets the torch songs and ballads, it’s Miranda’s super production numbers that continue to click the most with audiences today.

Lang’s direction is slick and stylish. The plot – while conventional to a fault – moves effortlessly enough through 82 minutes of pure mishap and utterly wacky screwball comedy. In the final analysis, Greenwich Village is a musical worth seeing because the sum of its parts equals an experience that is jolly good, if largely forgettable fun.

Fox Home Video’s DVD transfer is sumptuous. The Technicolor is rich, vibrant and glowing. Restoration efforts have resurrected an almost grain free image with sharp resolution and superbly rendered contrast levels. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are bright and pristine. The audio is presented either in re-channeled stereo or the original mono. Extras are limited to a stills gallery. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
0

THE TENDER TRAP (MGM 1955) Warner Home Video

Based on the Max Schulman/Robert Paul Smith Broadway smash, director Charles Walters’ The Tender Trap (1955) is a rather poignant romantic comedy that manages to be as bright and buoyant as it is introspective and revealing about the prototypical relationship between a middle-aged man and younger woman. The sparkling screenplay by Julius J. Epstein delivers top notch support to this tale of a swinger whose days of bachelorhood are at an end.

Sinatra is cast as Charlie Y. Reader – a playboy with a revolving bevy of beauties at his beckon call. At present these include ‘professional dog walker’ Helen (Carolyn Jones) and virtuoso violinist, Sylvia Crewes (Celeste Holm). Meanwhile, Charlie is visited by his best friend, Joe McCall (David Wayne) who begins his sabbatical in Charlie’s den of iniquity with all the envy of a married man who considers himself anchored to his profession, his wife and their three children. Joe will end his stay with sober appreciation for the fact that his own days as a rover are gladly behind him.

Charlie doesn’t really see how womanizing has become a self destructive way of life until one evening when, while out with Sylvia and Joe, he accidentally runs into Julia Gillis (Debbie Reynolds); a fresh-faced kid with high moral ideals about the right man who will one day become her husband. Julia has her entire life mapped out – right down to the last detail.

At first, Julia’s precocious verve amuses Charlie. Gradually, however, Charlie comes to understand just how far removed from Julia’s optimism and jaded he has become. Worse, Charlie finds himself falling in love with her – a development that infuriates Joe who has already begun to have deeper affections for Sylvia. Charlie attempts to seduce Julia in his trademark swinger style. But with Julia the slick approach fails to catch on.

Meanwhile, Joe asks Sylvia why she tolerates Charlie’s philandering. Her reply is a resignation of all hope in ever finding ‘the right man’; she’s simply willing to settle for second best in the hopes that something good will come of the experiment.

At first, Sylvia’s hand seems to play itself out. Forced by Joe to admit that his life is a fraud, Charlie proposes marriage to Sylvia. She accepts and the trio proceed to throw a garishly out of control party to celebrate the occasion. This delirium comes to an end when Julia confesses her love to Charlie and he, in turn, suddenly realizes that he cannot resist her any longer. She’s the girl for him and he’s the right man for her.

The Tender Trap may start out as just another vintage romantic comedy from the 1950s, but it ends its’ stay on the screen as a very adult and 'tender' revelation about middle-aged insecurities and the very real prospect of being alone for the rest of one's life.


Frank Sinatra is in rare form. After a decade of playing foolish, malnourished fops at MGM, Sinatra defied L.B. Mayer to his own detriment. He was black-listed from virtually every studio in the early 1950s and all but lost his recording contracts at Columbia, Decca and RCA. Sinatra’s resurrection mid-decade was largely due to his seminal performance in From Here To Eternity. The Tender Trap benefits greatly from Sinatra's more mature acting style, revealing new depth to both the man and the character he plays.

Although The Tender Trap opens with a musical performance by Sinatra (singing the title tune) the rest of the film is void of his singing talents - a fairly gutsy move considering the sway Sinatra's singing chops had on a marquee. But Sinatra’s acting performance stands alone without the luxury of his trademark vocal abilities. So too does Debbie Reynolds radiate a sincere maturity beneath her usual plucky exterior. David Wayne has never been better served on the scree as the frustrated married man on the verge of throwing over his family for a dead-end tryst.

The second best performance in the movie, however, belongs to Celeste Holm; providing layers of subtext to Sylvia that reveal her as a woman young enough to long for the fragile blissfulness of a husband and home, yet mature enough to understand that happiness may be a relative term for the successful woman who has aged beyond her romantic expiration date.

The Tender Trap is a great and sadly underrated movie that deserves a second chance. Hopefully, this DVD will reintroduce audiences to the film’s sobering reflections on life and love for posterity.

Warner Home Video’s DVD presentation is just a tad below par. The original Eastman color stock is in a state of faded decomposition. Though colors can appear relatively bright and vibrant, flesh tones are frequently washed out. Actor’s faces sometimes have a ghostly white patina with a loss of fine detail.

Age related artifacts are most noticeable during fades, dissolves and splices. On the whole, the image will not disappoint. It is not, however, an ideal presentation. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, recapturing much of the former glory of Cinemascope’s original 6 track stereo. Extras are limited to a rather engaging featurette on Sinatra’s 1950s film tenure with commentary from biographers and film historians. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2

MARRIAGE ON THE ROCKS (MGM 1965) Warner Home Video

Jack Donohue’s Marriage on the Rocks (1965) finds Frank Sinatra playing second fiddle as a lovelorn hipster turned family man whose wife is decidedly beside herself when it comes to finding reasons to stay married to him. The Cy Howard screenplay is clever enough, though perhaps a tad too conventional to be considered anything better than an overblown two hour exursion of those anticeptic romantic/comedies that populated the small screen throughout the 1950s.

Dan (Sinatra) and Valerie Edwards (Deborah Kerr) have been married for nineteen years and the strain is beginning to show. Though Dan sees no cracks in the eternal bliss of his wedded days, his wife has grown restless with his stability in the business world that has managed to provide them with an elegant home and two children, Tracy (Nancy Sinatra) and David (Michael Petit) but has taken the fiery spark out of their spirited days as a young couple.

Valerie is constantly throwing Dan’s swinger business partner and long time friend, Ernie Brewer (Dean Martin) in Dan’s face. Ernie’s never grown up. He’s constantly cavorting with hot young girls and living the sort of exciting life Valerie thinks she wants. Predictably, the old adage of ‘be careful what you wish for’ holds true.

After Ernie encourages Dan to take his wife on a second honeymoon, the couple arrives in Mexico to discover themselves on the brink of divorce. In fact, the decree is granted most willingly by amiable Miguel Santos (Cesar Romero); a one man show in the small town Dan and Valerie are staying in. Santos is the town’s judge, attorney, hotel proprietor and party coordinator.

To rectify their divorce, Dan decides to let his business acumen lapse and remarry Val’ in a lavish Mexican ceremony. Unfortunately, Dan is called away on business at the last moment, leaving Ernie to explain the situation. Instead, Ernie arrives at the altar on the day of the wedding and is accidentally married to Val’ by a Mexican priest. Seeing his moment to teach Valerie a lesson she will never forget, Dan moves out of their home, allowing both Valerie and their children to see what life would be like if their ‘Uncle Ernie’ were, in fact, their stepfather.

The film abounds in clichés and ‘60s stereotypes of a woman’s place in the home. Valerie is represented as something of a frustrated scatterbrain who doesn’t know what she wants until she has the opportunity to sample both sides of the marital fence with less than stellar results.

After reinvigorating his career in the mid-1950s with some truly inspiring movie work, Sinatra is barely going through the motions here. He’s as bland as pabulum and relegated to the backburner during the second half of the film as the plot shifts to illustrate how ineffectual Ernie is at taking Dan’s place on the homestead. Of the three principals, only Kerr is giving it her all from start to finish; at least attempting to make something of this clattering mess of plot points. In the final analysis, Marriage on the Rocks is a film on the brink of becoming a dinosaur before its time.

Warner Home Video’s DVD delivers a fairly solid image. Colors are relatively vibrant. Contrast levels are nicely realized. The sets are obvious, but beautifully lit with rich tones lovingly reproduced herein. Minimal grain and age related artifacts yield a rather impressive and tight anamorphic transfer that will surely please. The audio is a 5.1 stereo reworking of the original six track Cinemascope elements with inherent shortcomings in audio fidelity. There are NO extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
0

Sunday, November 16, 2008

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (Warner Bros. 1944) Warner Home Video

Delmer Daves’ Hollywood Canteen (1944) is as much a beloved cornucopia of cherished and iconic bit performances from the Warner stock company as it remains a lovingly produced time capsule from a very special moment in the history of Hollywood.

The film is a sincere attempt to popularize and immortalize Tinsel Town’s contribution to the war effort; the private nightclub first established by Warner’s very own Bette Davis as an exclusive hot spot, where any enlisted solider could mingle with filmdom’s royalty and enjoy a potpourri of grand entertainments.

The sentiment on this occasion is manufactured. For Robert Hutton – who plays the luckiest G.I. in the company – Cpl. Ed ‘Slim’ Green is neither a solider nor an A-list celebrity. But at least in tone of reverence, Hutton manages to capture and bottle up a blithe essence of wonderment and naïveté as a man who has first fallen in love with an image and then, the real McCoy.

Warner’s grand dame Bette Davis – playing herself, as Canteen hostess – sheds her usual bank of bravado in this movie to reveal a meaningful tenderness throughout her performance. When she congratulates Slim on being the millionth man to enter the Canteen, saying “Wherever you go, our hearts go with you” her humility and sense of appreciation for all men serving in the U.S. Armed Forces resonates warmth, compassion and the milk of human kindness, utterly void of cliché or rank sentimentality.

Slim first hears about the Hollywood Canteen from a cook at a local greasy spoon in Los Angeles. After walking his feet off all day with visions of actress, Joan Leslie firmly dictating his heart’s desire, Slim finally arrives at the canteen. In rapid succession he is first greeted by Joe E. Brown and then Barbara Stanwyck. Confessing his puppy dog’s crush over actress Joan Leslie to Brown, Slim’s secret is next leaked to host John Garfield, who wastes no time to inform Bette Davis of this one soldier’s only wish for the evening; to meet Joan Leslie in person.

That wish granted and sealed with an innocent kiss; Leslie is immediately taken with Slim whom she later introduces to her family. Between the bookends of this implausibly romantic wish fulfillment, the film inserts sound bytes and musical performances from a healthy sampling of Warner’s stock company.

Joan Crawford dances. The Andrews Sisters get ‘Corns For Their Country.’ Resident menace-makers Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre intimidate an unruly cadet. S.Z. Sakall has his cheeks tweaked and Ida Lupino attempts to humor a forward pass in French sent to her by Slim’s pal, Sgt. Nowland (Dane Clark), who has absolutely no luck in convincing Alexis Smith of his ‘primeval’ intentions – first quantified in a brief conversation with Paul Henreid.

Sixty-two stars in all reign over a magical weekend of in-house performances at the canteen. Eddie Cantor serves sandwiches and performs the delightfully smarmy ‘We’re Having A Baby’, Roy Rogers sings ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ atop Trigger, Jimmy Dorsey knocks ‘em dead with the ‘King Porter Stomp’ and Joseph Szigeti enlightens everyone with a highbrow performance of ‘The Bee’ before lampooning a bit with comedian Jack Benny.

Other standout musical performances at the canteen come from Dennis Morgan and Joe E. Brown’s rousing and patriotic ‘You Can Always Tell A Yank’; Carmen Cavallaro’s haunting and exhilarating ‘Voodoo Moon’, some truly mesmerizing Flamenco footwork by Rosario and Antonio, and, last but not least; ‘The General Jumped At Dawn’; an impressively melodic swing tune, masterfully carried off by The Golden Gate Quartet.

With few exceptions, the action rarely leaves the canteen stage of floor; the one noteworthy exception being an absolutely riveting performance by Joan McCracken in ‘Ballet in Jive’ – supposedly part of the Warner studio tour won by Slim for being the canteen’s millionth man.

At the time of its release, Hollywood Canteen was the single most popular film of the year. Today, it remains a memorable excursion for the film connoisseur or anyone who simply enjoys witnessing stellar craftsmen and women delighting so regularly in their chosen profession. In short then, Hollywood Canteen is an inspiration.

The same can be said of Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer. Derived from restored elements, the film’s B&W image looks quite sharp and impressive for the most part. The gray scale exhibits exceptional tonality. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are bright, though never blooming.

There are several scenes that exhibit less than perfect image quality; softly focused, with more visible film grain and age related artifacts. However, these moments are few and far between. The audio has also been cleaned up and is represented at an adequate listening level.

This reviewer’s one genuine regret is that with all the ‘Warner Night At the Movies’ extras included on this disc, the studio hasn’t bothered to also include an audio commentary among them. Oh well, minor quibbling I suppose; particularly when there is so much else to admire. Highly recommended!

*Please note: currently this disc has only been made available as part of the Warner Home Front Collection: a three disc set that also includes Thank Your Lucky Stars and Irving Berlin’s This Is The Army.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2.5

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Irving Berlin's THIS IS THE ARMY (Warner Bros. 1943) Warner Home Video

Irving Berlin’s This Is The Army (1943) is perhaps the most patriotic grand salute to the American Armed Forces ever attempted on film. An adopted son, Irving Berlin never forgot that his overwhelming critical and financial success came at the behest of a compassionate nation. Until his dying day, he remained eternally grateful for the opportunities he had been afforded and consistently endeavored to express that personal love of the United States through his own innate God-given talents as a composer of popular music.

This Is The Army was a highly successful stage show long before it became a movie, and there is something genuinely endearing – rather than static – about the care that director Michael Curtiz has given to retaining both the look and feel of that original theatrical presentation, while adding minor cinematic touches to freshen up the action for the big screen.

The plot is superficial at best. During World War I, song and dance man Jerry Jones (George Murphy) stages a magnificent ‘all soldier’ Broadway revue called ‘Yip Yip Yaphank’, before being conscripted into service.

Wounded in body, though not in spirit on the battlefield, Jerry returns home to convalesce and become a successful Broadway impresario and music publishing mogul. Together with his partner, Maxie Twardofsky (George Tobias), the men decide that with the looming crisis in Europe, the time is ripe for another all out tribute to America’s valiant men in arms.

The film fast tracks to the advent of the Second World War, where Jerry’s son, Johnny (Ronald Reagan) has become something of a silent, though conscientious objector to the conflict. After Johnny is enlisted and decides to stage a grand revival, ‘This Is The Army’ in support of the war bond effort, along with his buddy Sgt. McGee (Alan Hale), he runs into ghosts from his past, including the loss of a brother in the air force. These memories impact Johnny’s current relationship with Red Cross nurse and fiancée, Eileen Dibble (Joan Leslie).

The show – an assemblage of genuine enlisted men from America’s Armed Forces - goes on the road, touring all the major U.S. cities. It is a resounding smash. However, as the threat of real combat looms precariously in the background, Johnny’s fear over possibly making a widow out of Eileen get the better of him. He postpones their engagement indefinitely.

There’s really not much more to the story than this. What sets This Is The Army apart from other war time musical entertainment is its exemplary collection of Irving Berlin tunes; a finer, more rousing and patriotic set of songs arguably does not exist! The film’s title track is a loving lampoon of the separation between civilian and military life for incoming recruits.

Other songs celebrate the American solider at war; the U.S.’s supremacy in the sky; ‘American Eagles’ and on the sea; ‘How About A Cheer For The Navy.’ Gertrude Nielsen’s rendition of ‘Your Country and My Country’ gets the musical program off to a rousing start, as does Richard Crane’s poignant ‘I Left My Heart At The Stage Door Canteen.'

The film ends on a magnificent proclamation of selfless servitude and commitment to peace with ‘This Time Is The Last Time’; a staggering display of military maneuvers set against the backdrop of an art deco Uncle Sam and American Eagle, with the flags of friendly nations lining the left and right of the stage.

But perhaps the two best remembered musical moments in the film belong to radio singer Kate Smith and composer Irving Berlin. Smith introduces ‘God Bless America’ in a moment excised from real life; her rich bravado raising the American call to arms to new heights through Berlin’s lyrics, even as the tone of underscoring hints at some remnant sadness and pending gloom of conflict.

The other great moment belongs to Berlin, reprising for the film as he did on the stage, a cameo performance as a soldier begrudgingly adverse to revelry at the crack of dawn, with ‘Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning.’ Berlin, who was hardly a singer in great voice, nevertheless manages to convey his own sense of undying passion for the nation that made him a success.

As a result, This Is The Army achieves a crescendo of old fashion patriotism run amuck, the likes of which has not been seen in some time on the big screen. The film is an experience and faithful adaptation of Berlin’s stage spectacular rather than an outright cinematic reworking of the material.

Naysay pundits will suggest that there’s too little subtext and far too much schmaltz to make the film a hit with contemporary audiences. This critic will simply reply, ‘What in the world is wrong with that?’

So long as there are soldiers at war and families at home desperately awaiting their safe return, love of country will always be fashionable. In the final analysis, Berlin’s music makes audiences proud to be American – even if you were not born one. How many new Hollywood movies can claim as much?

After decades of having to contend with the worst possible image quality made readily available to home viewing audiences with, in some cases, missing frames and jump cuts, Warner Home Video has at long last rescued This Is The Army from public domain hell to produce a definitive DVD transfer worthy of the film itself.

Color fidelity, while perhaps not quite as refined as one might expect, is light years ahead of anything consumers have seen in a long while. Flesh tones retain a tad pasty quality, but reds are blood red and blacks deep, rich and solid. Occasionally, the image can appear slightly clumpy with a loss of fine details. There are also moments where age related artifacts become quite obvious. On the whole, however, the film looks beautiful.

The mono audio is a tad strident but, owing to the quality of existing prints, has been cleaned up rather nicely. In addition to the inclusion of the film’s original road show’s overture and exit music (not heard since the original premiere); this disc contains a fairly comprehensive documentary on Warner Bros. war movies narrated by Steven Spielberg. There’s also the usual Warner Night at the Movies extras (shorts, cartoons and theatrical trailer) as well as a fascinating commentary that includes thoughts from Joan Leslie. Highly recommended!

*Please note: currently this disc has only been made available as part of the Warner Home Front Collection: a three disc set that also includes Thank Your Lucky Stars and Hollywood Canteen.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3.5

Monday, October 13, 2008

THE GREAT AMERICAN BROADCAST (2oth Century-Fox 1941) Fox Home Video

Archie Mayo’s The Great American Broadcast (1941) is a rather loving tribute to radio technology and the impact it had on shaping America’s popular entertainment. The flimsy screenplay by Edwin Blum, Robert Ellis, Don Etlinger and Helen Logan begins in earnest with a predictable lover’s triangle but becomes bogged down by a litany of specialty acts that come and go with lightening speed. Basically, this is yet another attempt at the 'all-star' extravaganza, the film's plot serving only as background to string the novelties along.

The film’s unusual credit sequence makes deft use of a montage of radio greats – including Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny – reminding the audience of careers that were made with the debut of radio broadcasting.

From this rather auspicious introduction we move to a private landing strip owned by square jawed fly boy and entrepreneur, Rix Martin (John Payne) who is in chapter eleven and eager to pick a fight with telephone company workmen stringing wire across his field. After portly short wave enthusiast Chuck Hadley (Jack Oakie) helps Rix get out of a jam the two become best friends.

Chuck shows Rix his concept for radio with a homemade receiver built inside his apartment. Chuck also introduces Rix to his favorite girl, Vicki Adams (Alice Faye): big mistake! For in short order the rather tempestuous relationship between Vicki and Rix will blossom into romance. In the meantime, Rix needs some quick cash to take radio technology to the next level. He turns to recovering alcoholic and moneyed swell, Bruce Chadwick (Cesar Romero). Sober, Bruce wouldn’t think twice about investing in such a risky venture. Drunk, he’s all too eager to cut Rix a check for any amount he desires.

From a purely narrative perspective, only the first thirty minutes of the story prove engaging with Chuck eventually realizing he has lost Vicki to Rix. However, what the rest of the film lacks in narrative structure it more than makes up for with a mind-boggling cavalcade of top flight performers giving it their all. These include the melodic sweet tones of The Ink Spots, electric high stepping from The Nicholas Brothers and a thoroughly engrossing myriad of spectacular routines featuring The Wiere Brothers; a European dancer/juggler trio that are spellbinding entertainment unto themselves.

Another of studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck’s personally supervised productions, The Great American Broadcast was a big hit for 20th Century-Fox. Today, it seems more dated than other Fox musicals – if only from the perspective that we currently live in an age where radio technology seems rather quaint by comparison to our other forms of mass entertainment (movies, the internet, WiFi, digital downloads, et al).


Nevertheless, the film greatly benefits from solid performances by Faye, Payne and Oakie. The word 'troopers' comes to mind. What is so impressive about talent from Hollywood's golden age (as opposed to our current crop of celebrities) is how frequently and willingly they were able to sell absurd notions as high art with, not only a straight face but also, complete conviction.

Name me one celebrity living today who can do screwball comedy and not come across looking absolutely ridiculous. In The Great American Broadcast we have stars of the highest magnitude giving it their absolute all. If the plot has its failings (and it does) then Faye, Payne and Oakie never do. They're professionals through and through and know how to market themselves to the public with great wit, charm and soul. In the final analysis, The Great American Broadcast is total fluff - but sold with sincerity and that sincerity goes an awfully long way.

Fox Home Video’s B&W DVD is fairly impressive with strong contrast and tonality throughout. The image is very sharp with fine detail evident throughout. Occasionally, edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details momentarily distract. Otherwise, this is a fine visual presentation that will surely not disappoint. The mono audio has been cleaned up and is presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a featurette on the history of radio, a restoration comparison, advertising and stills gallery and original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2.5

FOUR JILLS IN A JEEP (2oth Century-Fox 1944) Fox Home Video

William A. Seiter’s Four Jills In A Jeep (1944) is not an Alice Faye musical (as Fox has billed it as part of their Alice Faye Collection)! Faye appears in the movie for exactly 3 minutes to reprise her Oscar-winning song ‘You’ll Never Know’ from Hello Frisco Hello. The central narrative concocted by Robert Ellis (first novelized by Carol Landis) is all about four USO entertainers who commit themselves to the war effort; body, soul and oodles of talent, to provide laughter and tears for the boys overseas.

Verisimilitude is the order of the day since the four featured stars of the movie – Kay Francis, Carole Landis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair – are, in fact, the original four Jills who toured Europe and Africa with the USO. The film opens with Betty Grable singing Cuddle Up A Little Closer on Command Performance Radio as MC Kay Francis looks on.

Afterward, Francis and her cohorts make a fuss about their desire to tour with Jimmy Dorsey and his band. Their wish comes true when the USO commissions the girls to leave America to entertain U.S. troops abroad. Thus begins an odyssey into danger, adventure, stolen kisses and meaningful romance.

Landis’ real life marriage to an army officer is recreated in the film with the fictional Ted Warren (John Harvey) standing in. Other highlights include Martha Raye’s usual quota of mugging for the cameras, and Landis’ bittersweet ballad. Presumably, Darryl F. Zanuck felt that the story and its four stars needed a bit more entertainment bang for the audience buck. Hence, Zanuck threw in some of the studio’s top flight talent into the mix to assist in this fictionalized USO entertainment. These include the aforementioned Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, Dick Haymes and George Jessel.

The disappointment herein is that none of these cameos bring anything new or fresh to the movie. No new material has been written for them. Instead, each reprises a moment from a movie they have already made which begs the question of ‘why bother to include them at all’? We’ve already bought what they are selling!

Ultimately, Four Jills in a Jeep is wartime entertainment; a time capsule from a period in American history when stars not only backed the war effort and the military but took the cause to heart and marketed it to the American public to sell war bonds and boost morale and good cheer back home. The film is pure fluff and not terribly convincing at that, but it allows us to see and appreciate the Hollywood pro-WWII propaganda machinery hard at work, all pistons firing at once.


Fox Home Video’s DVD is adequate, though hardly exceptional. The B&W image can be smooth; though on occasion grain and a digital harshness intrude for a quality that is inconsistent at best. The gray scale has been nicely rendered with good tonality. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine, though occasionally blooming. The audio is mono but adequately balanced. Extras include an isolated score, deleted scenes, restoration comparison and advertising/stills galleries.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2.5

HOLLYWOOD CAVALCADE (2oth Century-Fox 1939) Fox Home Video

Okay, someone at Fox Home Video has fallen asleep at the controls because Irving Cumming’s Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) is NOT a musical – so billed on its cover art and as part of the Alice Faye Collection Vol. II. Rather, the film is supposed to be a loving portrait of the early days of movie-making in California. Unhappy circumstance that, as an entertainment, the film tends to fall apart into turgid recreations of actual events we remember more fondly elsewhere in the cinema firmament.

Based on an idea from Lou Breslow, the screenplay by Ernest Pascal takes the fictional character of Michael Linnett Connors (Don Ameche) and runs amuck in visualizing him as an all-in-one movie mogul who basically created the film industry single-handedly.

At varying points in the screenplay, Mike takes on the flavor and coloring of a Mack Sennett, Cecil B. DeMille, Louis B. Mayer and even, Darryl F. Zanuck (the real man who discovered Rin-Tin-Tin). However, in fusing all of these great men into one, Linnett’s humanity evaporates with a machine-like precision: his only love being the movies.

Unhappy circumstance for Molly Adair Hayden (Alice Faye) who long suffers in her unrequited desire to have Mike take notice of her as anything but a film star. When first Mike and Molly meet, she is a Broadway understudy who has had a breakthrough performance after the star gets sick.

Mike is in the audience that night and, with buddy Dave Springold (J. Edward Bromberg) the two men cajole Molly into accepting a contract in California. Molly is skeptical, of course; a curiosity confirmed after she reluctantly makes the journey to the coast and learns that Mike is in fact an office boy aspiring to greatness within the fledgling movie industry.

Nevertheless, Molly is a big hit in pictures when she accidentally takes a pie in the kisser from Buster Keaton in her first silent short. Soon, Mike is brimming with ideas. He creates the spectacle of the ‘bathing beauty’, then moves into the realm of slapstick with Ben Turpin and later, The Keystone Cops. Finally, Mike launches into the epic a la Cecile B. DeMille.

What is particularly frustrating about the film is its rather slap-dash plot structure; moving through an endless series of vignettes depicting Hollywood’s early history with only Mike’s unbounded determination to act as our narrative coupling. Having Alice Faye in a movie where she does not utilize her great singing talent is, frankly, a travesty.

Throughout, one waits in baited anticipation for these turgid snippets and sound bytes to dissolve into a ballad or dance routine from the elegant Ms. Faye. Honestly, with so many Faye performances still absent on DVD, why this film was chosen ahead of others to be included in a ‘musical box set’ remains a mystery to this reviewer.

Fox Home Video’s DVD is a disappointment. Though restoration efforts have managed to more closely align the mis-registered 3 strip Technicolor negative, the color palette is faded and continues to be slightly out of focus on several glaring occasions. Furthermore, the spectrum of color does not hold up to other Technicolor films from this vintage (The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind).

Presumably, the original camera negative to this feature no longer exists, since colors are clumpy and flat throughout. Flesh tones are a pasty pink or orange. Fine detail is lost for the most part, particularly in facial features. Contrast levels seem to be a tad too low as well. The audio is presented at an adequate listening level.

Extras include 3 featurettes (one on the film and two more on Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle), a Movietone short, restoration comparison and advertising/stills galleries.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2

VIDEO/AUDIO
2

EXTRAS
3

Saturday, October 11, 2008

HELLO FRISCO HELLO (2oth Century-Fox 1943) Fox Home Video

H. Bruce Humberstone’s Hello Frisco Hello (1943) is fairly representative of the Fox formula musical from this vintage; frothy and mindless and harkening back to the simpler turn-of-the-century bric-a-brac that seems tailor-made for the studio's garishly vibrant use of Technicolor. The Robert Ellis, Helen Logan and Richard Macaulay screenplay is pedestrian at best and largely forgettable; all about a heel who eventually finds himself in the eyes of the woman who never stops loving him.


What helps move the narrative along is its glowing song catalogue of standards. With so much nostalgia readily on tap, ironically the film’s most outstanding musical moment derives from Alice Faye’s throbbing rendition of ‘You’ll Never Know’ – a new song expressly written for the film that won an Oscar and quickly became a war time staple amongst G.I.’s stationed overseas.


The narrative begins on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast – in reality, a seedy waterfront hotspot for hedonism and lowbrow entertainments, but on this occasion a glossy playground where the swells from Knob Hill rub elbows with the social climber set. Of this latter ilk is aspiring song and dance man, Johnny Cornell (John Payne); part of a quartet that includes comedian Dan Daley (Jack Oakie), fresh mouth Beulah Clancy (June Havoc) and chanteuse, Gertrude Trudy Evans (Alice Faye).


Johnny has big plans that never seem to come to fruition. Always pushing the boundaries of their current place of employment, Johnny and his entourage are fired by saloon keeper, Sharkey (Ward Bond) after trying out a new number on his stage without permission. Seemingly destitute once again, Johnny resurrects the act as part of a free Salvation Army street show.


The quartet raise money for the cause, but they also force all of the neighboring saloon keepers to ante up some personal patronage on the side to keep their own stage shows alive. With his modest bankroll, Johnny opens his own saloon – swankier than most and with a fervent determination to cater to the jet set as well as the common folk.


The ploy works, attracting the fair weather interests of (S)Knob Hill socialite Bernice Croft (Lyn Bari). Croft’s late father was a staunch supporter of the high brow arts (opera, ballet). However, Bernice has largely squandered that reputation and her late father’s fortunes on a series of lavish private parties.


After meeting Johnny at his theater, Bernice finagles an invitation to one of her parties for Johnny, Dan, Beulah and Trudy. At that gathering one of the swells, Ned Clark (John Archer) takes a personal interest in Trudy, though she continues to only have eyes for Johnny. Unfortunately, Bernice has her cap set for Johnny as well.


As Johnny’s fame and success lead to a string of popular night spots along the Barbary Coast, Bernice’s lavish spending forces her into personal bankruptcy. Johnny foolishly proposes marriage to Bernice. She marries him – then sets about spending his money as idiotically as she squandered her own. All the while, the long suffering Trudy continues to sing at Johnny’s clubs. However, when Trudy is offered the chance to sing in Europe, her departure threatens an end to both her partnership and friendship/nee ‘love’ interest in Johnny.


Hello Frisco Hello derives its title from a pop tune written in 1916 marked by the first transcontinental telephone service established in the United States. The film’s wafer thin plot is fleshed out by some justly celebrated musical sequences including ‘By The Light of The Silvery Moon’, the film’s title number and the aforementioned ‘You’ll Never Know.’ Gloss and surface sheen go a long way in saving the film from becoming just another nondescript song and dance cavalcade.


After dropping out of Down Argentine Way to have a baby, Alice Faye was given a star’s regal comeback by Darryl F. Zanuck. Hampered by rationing during the war years, Zanuck spared virtually no expense in mounting this super extravaganza with lavish costuming and sets; proof positive that his commitment to Faye’s enduring popularity with the public remained galvanic and in tact.


Hello Frisco Hello was a colossal hit. Today, it’s easy to see why. Faye is engaging and endearing. The camera makes love to her from a respectful distance and she in turn allows it to lovingly moon over her with one glorious close up after the next.


Despite a rather ominous disclaimer at the start of this DVD that suggests the film has been mastered from the best possible surviving elements, Fox Home Video’s digital transfer is practically perfect in every way. The 80 hr. restoration efforts on Hello Frisco Hello have yielded much of the sumptuous glow of Technicolor.


For the most part, colors are consistent and vibrantly rendered. Contrast levels are bang on. About two thirds into the film a very minor vertical imperfection in the color is detected running along the right side of the frame – but this is a minor quibble. The audio has also been remastered and is represented at an adequate listening level with fine tonality.


Extras include a very informative featurette on the film and Alice’s career, stills and publicity galleries, an audio commentary, restoration comparison and theatrical trailer. Recommended!


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3.5

Thursday, October 2, 2008

BOOMERANG (2oth Century-Fox 1947) Fox Home Video

Based on a Reader’s Digest article by Anthony Abbott, director Elia Kazan’s Boomerang (1947) is a compelling indictment against small town political hypocrisy and the overzealous machinery of jurisprudence that fuels its need for a scapegoat. Cutting edge and controversial for its time, Boomerang provides a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of a man’s conscience. As with all Fox movies personally supervised by Darryl F. Zanuck, the film carries a social morality in its side purse of entertainment value.

When a beloved Connecticut priest, Father George Lambert (Wryley Birch) is gunned down on a public street the outcry for justice is both swift and immediate. Seven onlookers are certain they can identify the man responsible for the crime; a consensus that sparks a ‘witch’ – rather than ‘man’ - hunt for the perpetrator.

Eventually Police Chief Harold F. Robinson’s (Lee J. Cobb) men bring in John Waldron (Arthur Kennedy) as their suspect. Waldron’s failed affair with Irene Nelson (Cara Williams); a waitress at the Coney Island Café leads the unscrupulous Irene to side with these seven onlookers who have already made a positive I.D. on Waldron as the killer. Fueled by pressure from the local press, supplied by newspaper columnist Dave Woods (Sam Levene), and motivated by unseen politicized forces who have their own agendas in making the case stick, John Waldron’s fate rests on local prosecuting attorney, Henry Harvey (Dana Andrews).

Despite encouragement from local state officials including Mayor Swayze (Walter Greaza) and Public Works Commissioner Paul Harris (Ed Bagley), Harvey is a straight arrow who will not be swayed by the fickle authority of mob rule. Harvey’s wife, Madge (Jane Wyatt) agrees with her husband – though she adds that only he can decide for himself what is just and proper. To this end, Harvey decides to go it alone – against the advice of fair-weather friends and all the state’s evidence in order to exonerate Waldron of the crime of murder.

The screenplay by Richard Murphy is fraught with great tension and introspection; despite a rather heavy-handed voice over narration that intrudes mostly at the beginning and end of the story. Like other crime/noir thrillers from this vintage in Fox’s history (The House on 92nd Street, House On Telegraph Hill, Somewhere In The Night), Boomerang benefits greatly from its use of actual locations instead of sets. The exteriors add realism.

As he proved in Fox’s Laura (1944) Dana Andrews is the ideal sleuth. There is conviction to his gesture and credence to his posturing that make it all believable. Like a variation of James Stewart, Andrews plays Harvey as an ‘everyman’ – that rare solid citizen we would all like to place our faith and trust in with absolute certainty.

The rest of the cast, apart from Arthur Kennedy and perhaps Ed Bagley, do not quite measure up in either presence or purpose, but it doesn’t really matter. The story is true to life and compelling. Andrews’ central performance remains the necessary glue that keeps our interest alive throughout. Although the ending of Boomerang leaves the real killer’s identity something of an enigma, the film carries a very powerful message; one man against the odds can make a difference.

Fox Home Video’s DVD represents something of a curiosity. Originally slated for release over a year ago, the film was pulled at the last minute – presumably because of a rights issue – then re-slated for general release several months ago. It finally arrives on home video as part of the ‘Fox Noir Series’, its skewed cover art and numbering on the show box spine suggesting where in the line up it ought to have originally appeared. (Aside: Fox cover art for their noir series has long since adopted a full front cover design and no numbering).

It is important to note that early titles in Fox’s noir series were a hit or miss in terms of quality and Boomerang is no exception to that rule. Although this transfer is not the worst of the lot, it is hardly a concerted effort to bring the film to home video at a level of quality befitting the digital format. Video noise and slight edge enhancement are the biggest culprits in this transfer. At times the image can appear quite free from these distractions, though many of the exterior long shots are plagued by distortions in vertical and horizontal straight lines.

Otherwise, the B&W image appears adequately contrasted. Certain scenes hint at slight fading of the original film stock. Obvious grain is also an issue during several scenes, as are age related artifacts. The audio is generally smooth and adequately represented. The only extra worth mentioning is an informative audio commentary. For the rest, we get a theatrical trailer, minus its voice over and overlay of credits; more trailers for other Fox Film Noir and a brief stills gallery. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2

HOLLYWOOD HOTEL (Warner Bros. 1937) Warner Home Video

Busby Berkeley’s Hollywood Hotel (1937) represents the final flowering of his meteoric success as a choreographer/director at Warner Bros. – the studio that made his inimitable brand of kaleidoscopic super kitsch world famous.

The film is a mind-bogglingly lavish spectacle hinged on a wafer thin plot knocked out by screenwriters Jerry Wald, Maurice Leo and Richard Macaulay. Ironically, Hollywood Hotel sparkles with an unusual brilliance not merely limited to its musical performances; perhaps because, for once, the studio allowed Berkeley to direct an entire feature. Hence, the inevitable break between Berkeley’s sumptuous escapism and the rather pedestrian staging of some other director for the non-musical portions is absent on this outing.

The screenplay casts Dick Powell as Ronnie Bowers, a singing saxophone player who warbles his way into a talent contest that leads to a contract at a major Hollywood studio. Unfortunately for Bowers, like so many star struck kids of his vintage, his dreams are quickly relegated to the background scenery of other stars’ pictures.

Worse, after hearing Ronnie sing, the studio decides to exploit him as a vocal dub for their current male star, ham actor Alexander Dupre (Alan Mowbray). After witnessing Dupre’s fracturing of his tender lyric on the big screen, Ronnie has had enough. He walks out of the theater and even contemplates walking out on his contract.

However, Ronnie believes that his luck is about to change for the better after he mistakenly assumes he will be escorting film legend Mona Marshall (Lola Lane) to a world premiere. In fact, he has been assigned to accompany Mona’s understudy, Virginia Stanton (Rosemary Lane) – a dead ringer for Marshall - instead.

Predictably, after some initial angst Ronnie and Virginia begin to fall in love. Combining their dreams toward a common goal, the two conspire to make Alexander miss his big debut as part of gossip columnist Louella Parson’s radio program, broadcast live from the lavishly appointed Orchid Room inside the Hollywood Hotel. Virginia pretends to be Mona, driving off with Alexander while Ronnie takes his place opposite Mona at the broadcast. By the time Alexander realizes he’s been duped its’ too late. His career is over and Hollywood has its new male star.

The musical program of Hollywood Hotel delivers many a delight; but its iconic song will always be ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ – an anthem to the fiction that anyone can be a star with just a little luck. For the rest, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (including a cameo of a very young Harry James) provide some wonderful swing tunes. The finale, set to a revamped full orchestral and choral arrangement of the classic Otchichornya is a knockout. With this film, Warner Bros. may have closed out the decade on vintage Busby Berkeley, but it did so on a very high note.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is very pleasing. A few minor instances of edge enhancement do not impact the overall quality of the B&W transfer. Contrast levels are solid and bang on. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are generally clean and never blooming. Fine detail is evident throughout. The grayscale exhibits a smooth tonality. The mono audio is adequately represented. Extras are limited to a few vintage short subjects and theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

GOLD DIGGERS IN PARIS (Warner Bros. 1938) Warner Home Video

Arguably one of the most light-hearted movies in the ‘gold digger’ series from Warner Bros., Ray Enright’s Gold Diggers In Paris (1938) is a sprite and obtuse romp through the glittery backdrop of gay Paree; employing a tried and true formula of mistaken identity – jam packed with talent and a really snappy screenplay by Earl Baldwin and Warren Duff.

Musicals in general tend to get a bad wrap from the critics for sacrificing plot in favor of spectacle. But this critic would remind of the fact that musicals are hardly meant to be practical. They are never grounded in realism. Hence, the best level of expectation is to simply go along for the ride with a smile. The best of the genre balance spectacle with moderate substance – but the latter is hardly required to get the best bang for one’s buck.

Plot wise: when overzealous ham Maurice Giraud (Hugh Herbert) is sent as a representative of the Paris International Dance Exposition to America to invite its ballet to compete in France for cash prizes, he accidentally arrives at the Club Balle instead – a New York hot spot where nightclub entertainer Terry Moore (Rudy Vallee) is performing a rather goofy south seas routine. The club’s owner Duke Dennis (Allen Jenkins) is beside himself. His establishment is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. But then an idea strikes the boys; why not go to Paris and wow the French with their show?

To this end, Terry and Duke hire ballet instructor Luis Leoni (Fritz Feld) to educate their chorines on the boat ride across the Atlantic. Luis brings his protégée Kay Morrow (Rosemary Lane) for company. Also along for the trip is Terry’s ex-wife, Mona (Gloria Dickson); a tough gal determined that her alimony checks keep coming. Predictably, Terry and Kay strike up a winning friendship that quickly translates into a budding romance.

There are several plot wrinkles to contend with: the first develops after legitimate ballet master, Padrinsky (Curt Bois) reads about the ship’s departure in the newspaper and decides that he must compete in Paris. Since only one corps de ballet from each country can enter the contest, Padrinsky brings along his ballet-loving gangster pal, Mike Coogan (Ed Brophy) with orders to eliminate Terry and Duke from the competition. The second wrinkle involves Kay’s burgeoning love for Terry that gets sidetracked after she learns he was once married to Mona. The third and final wrinkle involves Padrinsky securing deportation visas for Terry, Duke and their dancers to prevent them from performing at the competition.

Despite the fact that Gold Diggers In Paris was produced during one of the studio’s cost cutting periods, the inventiveness of its choreographer Busby Berkeley is on very solid ground. The most winning aspect of the film is its inventively staged musical sequences to tunes that have since become standards; The Latin Quarter, I Wanna Go Back To Bali, Put That Down In Writing, A Stranger in Paree, Day Dreaming All Night Long, and Waltz of the Flowers. Gold Diggers In Paris may not be high art, but it is certainly a very entertaining film with much to admire.

The biggest drawback is Rudy Vallee as the film’s star – in fine voice, but tragically bland by design. He fades into the backdrop so readily that we have to keep being reminded he is the star. Nevertheless, the Baldwin/Duff screenplay keeps the story’s pace moving swiftly. Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic visions of dancers as objects in a grander matte of superficial perfection secures the film’s place as a memorable musical worthy of rediscovery on DVD.

Warner Home Video’s DVD delivers a very pleasing B&W image. Although grain and age related artifacts intrude, for the most part the image is quite smooth. Fine detail is generally nicely realized. Contrast levels are also adequately rendered. Blacks are solid and deep. Whites are mostly clean and never blooming. The audio has been cleaned up in mono. Extras are limited to a few short subjects and theatrical trailer. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

GOLD DIGGERS OF 1937 (Warner Bros. 1937) Warner Home Video

Based on a play by Richard Maibaum, Lloyd Bacon’s Gold Diggers of 1937 is a fairly light-hearted and amusing musical diversion co-directed by Busby Berkeley. By 1937, Berkeley’s security at Warner Bros., as their foremost choreographer had begun to wane. Cost cutting on the back lot precluded Berkeley from indulging in the sort of lavish spectacle that had accompanied earlier Gold Digger movies in the franchise. But that did not stop Berkeley from creating his inimitable brand of cinema magic.

Plot wise, the film is on very shaky ground. Dick Powell is Rosmer Peck, an insurance agent whose heart just isn’t in his work. He’d rather be a song and dance man. While on a train, Rosmer meets Norma Perry (the very pert and plucky Joan Blondell); or, that is, she meets Rosmer after ducking into his private compartment to escape a pack of horny insurance salesmen who want to get to know her better. Norma has just been cast out of a seedy Vaudeville show. Rosmer promises Norma that his boss, Andy Callahan (William Davidson) will give her a job as a stenographer.

Indeed, Rosmer is true to his word. Norma gets the job and to repay the favor, she inadvertently sends Rosmer out on a false claim to insure Broadway producer J.J. Hobart (Victor Moore). It seems that Hobart is unaware that his partners have lost all of the backing for the new show on the New York stock exchange. At 59, Hobart signs for a $1 million insurance policy to get his money back, equally unaware that he must die to collect. After an assassination attempt by his partners fails, Norma’s girlfriend, Genevieve (Glenda Farrell) begins to develop affections for the wily old gent. But when Hobart learns that he is broke he suffers a breakdown, forcing Rosmer to go on with the show in spite of their obvious lack of money.

Flimsy at best in terms of plot, the screenplay nevertheless finds plenty of smart-cracking one liners for its cast to rattle off, thereby deterring us from the fact that there is very little to sustain our interest. The film’s other saving grace is choreographer Busby Berkeley’s two mind-boggling musical routines that bookend the story; Let’s Put Our Heads Together and All’s Fair In Love and War; the latter taking Berkeley’s days as a drill sergeant in the army to new and extreme heights. Blondell and Powell act as generals in an all out battle of the sexes set to music. Not much substance here, but oh, how style manages to mask that imperfection in a patina of gloss that continues to shine.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is nicely rendered, though not without its imperfections. Process shots in the film’s finale suffer from aliasing and edge enhancement, and there are times when film grain and age related artifacts seem harsh and distracting. Overall, however, the image is adequately rendered with fine detail throughout. Contrast levels are bang on for the most part. The mono audio is adequately represented. The only extras are a few vintage short subjects and a theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
2

VARSITY SHOW (Warner Bros. 1937) Warner Home Video

William Keighley’s Varsity Show (1937) is virtually void of a sustainable plot – its ‘hey kids, let’s up on a show’ variation from screenwriters Jerry Wald, Richard Macaulay, Sid Herzig and Warren Duff so tired and out of step that it is mildly in danger of sinking the film’s entertainment value as a whole.

All the more reason to have faith in the inimitable talents of choreographer Busby Berkeley and his seamless staging of the grand finale ‘Love Is On The Air Tonight. Employing several hundred dancers on a massive sixty foot wide by fifty foot high series of steps Berkeley’s inventive choreography pays homage to some of the biggest college football teams; his overhead shots capturing this massive chorine in varsity letter formation.



The plot unravels with Professor Washburn (Roy Atwell) protesting the introduction of swing music to Winfield College’s annual varsity show. Students Barbara Steward (Rosemary Lane), Betty Bradley (Priscilla Lane) and Trout (Sterling Holloway), among others, protest the rigidity with which the college is being run. They appeal to the sensibility of Dean Meredith (Halliwell Hobbes) who backs up Washburn's decision. The students' next course of action is to contact, Charles Daly (Dick Powell); a local boy and Winfield alumni who made good as a Broadway producer. The students hope to convince Daly to stage their campus show.

Daly's stage manager, Willy Williams (Ted Healy) isn't so much sympathetic to the students' cause as he sees a way for he and Daly to get back on top and in good with both Broadway and a new deal to make a film in Hollywood. What none of the students realize is that Daly’s success on the Great White Way has long since turned to vinegar. He desperately needs a hit to prove to his backers that he is still a viable commodity. Meanwhile, the college’s precarious financial situation threatens cancellation of the show.

A rather perfunctory story to say the least, Varsity Show’s salvation is its musical program that frequently, and happily, interrupts its leaden plot conventions with oodles of talent showcased, arguably, to its best in song and dance. In her film debut, Rosemary Lane makes an extremely winsome heroine out of her fluff piece. Dick Powell is in good voice and spirits, still playing the half optimist/half cynic/all boy wonder that made his early career as a crooner at Warner Bros. so wildly popular with the bobby-soxer set. Sterling Holloway and Ted Healy deliver bits of welcomed comic relief. Varsity Show may not be a superior musical offering, but it has sparks of brilliance and a memorable cast who sell the whole contraption as though it were legit.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is most impressive; a very crisp, clean B&W image with solid contrasts and fine detail evident throughout. Occasionally, grain and age related artifacts intrude, but these are mostly during dissolves, wipes and fades. The audio is adequately represented. From a transfer perspective, there is absolutely nothing to complain about herein. Extras are limited to a few vintage short subjects and theatrical trailer.

*Please note: 2 sources consulted in the writing of this review list Varsity Show's running time at 120 min. and make special mention of the fact that it was one of Warner's most ambitious movie musicals of the decade. The DVD contains an 80 min. cut, meaning that roughly 40min. of material has been excised.

In fact, upon careful review of the DVD there are many sequences in the film that abruptly end with a fade out and dialogue that appears to fade out before the scene is actually over - leading this reviewer to believe that this cut of Varsity Show was, in fact, mastered from a reissue print that might have been released by the studio some years later as part of a double bill.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

Thursday, July 3, 2008

MR. & MRS. SMITH (RKO 1941) Warner Home Video

Alfred Hitchcock once said that if he had decided to make Cinderella his audience would be looking for a body in the coach. Point well taken. Not everything that Hitchcock made was gold, and the few times he attempted to veer away from his tried and true 'wrong man' formula proved infrequent box office disappointments on an otherwise sterling film career.

The demand for Alfred Hitchcock’s services following the back to back smash hits of Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent was overwhelming. While producer David O. Selznick toyed with the idea of developing future in-house projects for his star director, he was also not above loaning Hitchcock out like a prize cow to RKO; in this case for an unlikely dabbling in screwball comedy; Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941).

Scripted by Norman Krasna, the film tells the rather conventional tale of married couple Ann (Carole Lombard) and David (Robert Montgomery) who are struggling to find reasons to stay married. The problem it seems stems from the couple’s ‘one question a month’ rule.

Ann asks David if given the opportunity to go back in time and, knowing then what he knows now, would he still have married her. In a moment of honesty, David confesses that although he loves his wife he also misses his bachelor's freedom, leading Ann to erroneously deduce that he no longer loves her.

David’s response is made even more problematic when the couple learns that their marriage is not legal because of a state boundary dispute. Recognizing that he has been free all along and assuming the question is therefore moot, David decides to propose marriage to his wife again. Only, now Ann contemplates the practicality of spending the rest of her life with David.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is admirably nutty – masterfully pulled off by Lombard's penchant for playing the frazzled madcap to perfection and by Montgomery's willingness to play Bud Abbott to her Lou Costello. But given Alfred Hitchcock’s proven prowess in the field of suspense one wonders what could have possibly been going through the executive mindset at RKO to hire him for a romantic comedy.

Hitchcock shoots his film with an uncharacteristically non-Hitchcockian flair. His direction is solid and more than salvageable, if not on par with the innate mastery for the genre that directors like Leo McCarey and Preston Sturges both share. In this respect, Mr. and Mrs. Smith founders - badly on occasion - from a complete lack of comedic subterfuge. It's an equitable comedy, but not an outrageously ingenious one.

Warner Home Video’s DVD delivers a below par picture quality. The B&W image is grainy, poorly contrasted and contains a litany of age related artifacts. Contrast levels are weak at best. Blacks are a deep gray; whites, a pale gray. Fine details tend to get lost under the patina of film grain. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequately represented. Extras include a very brief featurette on the film and its theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
1.5

SUSPICION (RKO 1941) Warner Home Video

By 1941, Alfred Hitchcock had begun to grow restless with the films he was being assigned under his ironclad contract with David O. Selznick. A reprieve of sorts came just in time with Hitch’s first project for RKO; Suspicion (1941), the story of wealthy wallflower, Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) and her inexplicable romantic obsession with male gold digger, Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant). Defying her parents, Lina becomes Johnnie’s wife then slowly begins to realize what a scamp her new husband is.

After the death of her father (Cedric Hardwick), Lina is disappointed to learn she has been left out of his will. For Johnnie, the snub is more serious. He has mortgaged their fabulous lifestyle on the assumption that Lina’s inheritance would bail them both out of debt. Now, Johnnie is forced to find other means to sustain that lifestyle to which they both have become accustom.

Johnnie confides a get rich quick scheme to close friend, Gordon ‘Beaky’ Thwaite (Nigel Bruce), who agrees to help fund Johnnie’s plans – then mysteriously dies after the project is established. Suspecting that her husband may be a murderer – a progressive thought that ought to have led to an entirely different third act in the film – Lina resigns herself to the love she feels for Johnnie, despite her misgivings about his own sincerity in their relationship.

Johnnie tells Lina he is taking her to her mother’s because he cannot stand that she distrusts him. On the way there Lina’s car door suddenly flies open and Lina, assuming that Johnnie is attempting to throw her from the speeding vehicle, fights him as his hand reaches toward her. Instead, Johnnie pulls the car aside and tells Lina that she is a fool. He then further confides that he has always been in love with her – an unsatisfactory bit of tacked-on nonsense that succeeds in convincing Lina to get back into their car and return home with her husband. The two drive off together – all mistrust between them seemingly forgiven and forgotten.

Suspicion is based on Anthony Berkeley’s popular novel. In the novel’s original ending, Lina discovers that her worst fears are true – Johnnie is Thwaite’s killer and is planning to do away with her next for the insurance money. An inexplicable obsessive love prevents Lina from saving herself. Knowing that she will be dead by morning, Lina writes her mother a note of confession, explaining the truth about Johnnie; then asks Johnnie to mail it for her after he has already made her drink a glass of poisoned milk.

Lina dies and Johnnie, believing that he has managed the perfect crime, decides that the least he can do for the deceased is to mail her final letter home. The last shot in the film was to have been Johnnie tossing Lina’s letter to her mother in a postal mail slot – thereby ensuring audiences and the censors that justice would eventually prevail on Lina’s behalf.

But the censors balked at this scenario, arguing that it did not resolve in very clear and concrete terms that justice would prevail over the devious motives of a cold-blooded killer (one of the absolute ‘musts’ in the Production Code of Ethics) and furthermore, that presenting Cary Grant as a murderer would do considerable damage to the actor’s reputation with fans. Unable to sway the censors otherwise, revisions to the shooting script were eventually made and the film’s ending was awkwardly diluted. Though Suspicion did respectable business at the box office, it proved to be less successful than Hitchcock’s previous efforts; the one exception being that Fontaine’s performance as Lina ultimately won her the Best Actress Oscar statuette; an award that ought to have been hers for an outstanding star turn in Rebecca the year before.

Warner Home Video’s DVD release is welcome indeed. Suspicion has never looked better. Though the B&W image still contains instances of obtrusive grain as well as sporadic appearances of age related artifacts, the overall quality is one of brightly contrasted, sharp and refined details throughout. The audio is mono as originally recorded and represented nicely herein. Extras include an all too brief featurette on the making of the film and its theatrical trailer. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1.5

THE PARADINE CASE (Selznick International 1947) Anchor Bay

The Paradine Case (1947) effectively ended the association between Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick with a modest thud. That the resulting project failed to live up to everyone’s expectations (coming directly after Notorious) belies Selznick’s intervention on the project, even though the film itself is consistently charming and moody, if nowhere near the caliber of its predecessor.

Originally Hitchcock had wanted either Ronald Colman or Laurence Olivier for the role of the barrister, Anthony Keane. There is some speculation that Hitch’ also sought the elusive Greta Garbo as his Mrs. Paradine. Disinterested in paying for these loan outs, Selznick assigned his own homegrown contract players to the cast. Hitchcock was disenchanted with this decision. Although he greatly admired Gregory Peck, Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan as actors, he felt all of them entirely unsuited for their roles.

Nevertheless, the project progressed at a grueling ninety-two day shoot – the longest of any Hitchcock film schedule to date. It was always Selznick’s intention to create another colossus – an extensive courtroom melodrama with obsessive love as its underpinning. Working from a script by Selznick and Ben Hecht, Hitchcock chose to acquiesce to Selznick’s demand rather than fight the producer's desires for a really big movie. In the end, Hitchcock delivered a rough cut that ran nearly 3 hours. For once, Selznick felt that a film could, in fact, be too long and, after having disposed of Hitchcock’s services once and for all, he went to work re-editing The Paradine Case down to a modest 125 minutes.

Though the cuts are not damaging to the overall continuity of the story, they do tend to reduce various characters to mere cardboard cutouts. Imminent personalities such as Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore – cast in the film as tawdry philanderer, Judge Lord Thomas and Lady Horfield - simply float in and out of the story rather than becoming an integral part of it. So too, does the ending of the film, at least in hindsight, seem slightly rushed.

The story that emerges on screen is rather threadbare and in viewing the film today one wonders just how much more there might have been to sustain an audiences’ interest for three hours. The plot concerns one Maddalena Anna Paradine (Valli), the late wife of a blind colonel whom she is accused of poisoning to death. It seems Mrs. Paradine has been having an affair with her husband’s valet, Andre LaTour (Jourdan).




On the advice of legal council, Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn) Maddalena hires handsome hotshot attorney, Anthony Keane (Peck) as her defense. But the trial is made problematic when the married Keane begins to invest in Maddalena’s innocence on the basis that he is slowly becoming enamored with her. Keane’s wife, Gay (Ann Todd) is patient in her love, allowing her husband his romantic fancies because she knows they will come to not; for Maddalena is guilty of the charge.

Given the severity of Selznick’s editing, the distillation of Hitchcock’s suspense into tepid melodrama is perhaps forgivable. The resulting film is much more a polite comedy of manners than a political/crime thriller. There are no surprises, no great complexities to wade through and no rivalry between characters once the audience has figured out that the accused is in fact destined to die.

To date, only Anchor Bay Home Video has managed to release a credible DVD transfer of The Paradine Case. The disc is currently out of print but readily available on Amazon and other websites. The B&W transfer is generally sharp and clean, with only moderate lapses of grain and age related artifacts and the occasional hint of edge enhancement that will not distract. The audio is mono as originally intended and presented at an adequate listening level. The one regret here is that Anchor Bay did not produce either a documentary of featurette on the making of the film.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0