Saturday, May 31, 2014

SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS: 2 disc SE (MGM 1954) Warner Home Video

Based on Steven Vincent Benet's 'The Sobbin' Women' - itself a version of an ancient Roman tale, The Rape of the Sabine Women - director Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) remains at the high water mark of MGM’s illustrious musical movie output; an unpretentious, ebullient masterwork that, in hindsight had everything working against it, yet somehow managed to triumph against the studio’s miserly cost-cutting measures to become one of the biggest and brightest money makers of the season. The name Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer evokes a myriad of fond movie land reflections long since having become a part of our collective memory. 
In hindsight, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ought not to have been among them: a big and boisterous outdoorsy musical extravaganza distilled into a cramped and claustrophobic, studio-bound production lacking the visual splendor of, say, Oklahoma! In fact, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was begun as something of a response to 2oth Century-Fox outbidding MGM for the rights to produce Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1955).
In pre-planning the project, producer Jack Cummings turned over the creative reigns to one of MGM’s freshest finds: director Stanley Donen, who had inconspicuously come to the studio as a dancer from Broadway’s Best Foot Forward. Alas, and mercifully, Donen’s ambitions were loftier. He quickly got the ear of rising star, Gene Kelly, his legendary collaborations with Gene leading to a lucrative co-directing credit before venturing out on his own. In retrospect, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers immeasurably benefits from Donen’s indentured wherewithal behind the camera; his ability to maneuver and re-frame the action and the extras in the expansive vistas of Cinemascope, camouflaging many – if not all – of the shortcomings inherent in this studio-bound production.
Just prior to shooting, studio head, Dore Schary chose to slash the film’s budget by nearly half, scrapping Donen’s request to shoot a large percentage of the movie outdoors. With the exception of a few brief establishing shots, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers would be made almost entirely inside a series of sound stages, the cavernous interiors redressed with painted cycloramas to reflect the wide open spaces of Oregon circa the late 1800’s. If Seven Brides for Seven Brothers has a shortcoming, it remains MGM’s shortsightedness to realize the movie would have immensely benefited from a few key sequences – most noticeably, ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Day’, ‘The Barn Raising Ballet’ and ‘Lonesome Polecat’ being shot on location. In retrospect, there remains a queer disconnect between these studio-bound production numbers and the ‘Bless Your Beautiful Hide’ and ‘Spring, Spring, Spring’ sequences, photographed outdoors on the MGM back lot. 
To Stanley Donen’s credit, we are never entirely aware, or perhaps distracted by the juxtaposition for more than a few fleeting moments. Interestingly, the revised budget on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was in service of Gene Kelly’s mounting expenses on another stage-bound musical: Brigadoon. Like Brigadoon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was photographed twice; once in the vast expanses of anamorphic Cinemascope (that director Vincente Minnelli once commented was only suitable for photographing snakes and funeral processions), then again in the more theater-friendly, matted aspect ratio of 1.78:1. In Cinemascope’s infancy, studios were eager to capitalize on the gimmick of widescreen, yet wary of its enduring appeal. Donen’s finesse in being able to shoot two movies with decidedly different framing requirements reveals his accomplished sense of cinema space. Neither version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers feels cramped. Nor does it seem as though Donen was forced to compromise the integrity of his tempo, mood or staging to accommodate either process.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers stars Howard Keel and Jane Powell in roles that would arguably define their careers for decades to follow. Powell’s tenure at MGM had dated all the way back to the late 1940’s when she made her formidable debut as the studio’s response to Universal’s Deanna Durbin in George Sidney’s Holiday in Mexico (1946 – not her first starring role, but her first for MGM); a lavishly appointed and tune-filled extravaganza. Keel was then considered something of a valiant successor to MGM’s Nelson Eddy (it was briefly hoped he and the studio’s resident soprano, Kathryn Grayson – with whom he had co-starred in MGM’s remake of Showboat 1951 – would resurrect the operetta for another cycle a la the likes of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy). Alas, Keel came to MGM in its waning years; a towering, raven-haired baritone with arrogant charm. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers affords each of these ensconced musical stars their genuine opportunity to shine; Powell as the determined frontier woman devoted to bringing couth to the ill-bred Pontipee brothers; Keel, as Adam (her husband), ensuring the manly vein of brute self-importance endures despite the feminizing characteristics of a woman’s touch.
Stanley Donen stock piled the rest of his cast with accomplished dancers; New York City ballet’s Jacques d'Amboise as Ephraim Pontipee, Broadway’s Tommy Rall as Frank, and MGM contract dancers, Marc Platt, Matt Mattox and Russ Tamblyn as Daniel, Caleb and Gideon respectively. The one exception is MGM contract player, Jeff Richards as Benjamin; undeniably being groomed as the hunk du jour, but decidedly born with two left feet. Look carefully and you’ll notice Donen – aware of Richards’ short-comings, is always cleverly camouflaging of the obvious; setting Richards’ apart from the action; or relying on his innate athleticism to perform simpler dance steps while the other’s fill in the gaps. Richards would, in fact, have a following as a prominent player in MGM’s B-noir/detective thrillers from the mid-1940’s to the late 50’s. He even managed to acquit himself rather nicely of ‘Rock n’ Roll Tumbleweed’ ; a rare bright spot in the otherwise turgidly scripted 1956 remake of The Women, entitled The Opposite Sex.
To compliment, as well as offset all this male machismo, Donen handpicked his ‘brides’ from MGM’s formidable roster of female talent; pin-up Julie Newmar as Dorcas, Nancy Kilgas as Alice,  Betty Carr (Sarah), Virginia Gibson (Liza), Ruta Lee (Ruth) and Norma Doggett (Martha). Interestingly, while their male counterparts all had prosperous careers either in movies or elsewhere, these ladies’ tenures were fairly brief and undistinguished apart from their appearance in this movie. In hindsight, their autonomy serves the story, rewritten herein by alumni, Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich and Dorothy Kingsley, extremely well. For Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is very much an ensemble piece with Keel and Powell steering at the helm. Yet, Donen’s contributions on the film equally ensure none of the cast is overlooked, particularly during the rambunctious musical sequences.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a musical bursting at the seams and filled to the rafters with spunk, heart and energy, nowhere more exuberantly on display than in The Barn Raising Ballet. For nearly six minutes we are spellbound in the dark by an utterly vigorous display of masculine ego run amuck; a challenge dance between the athletic Pontipee brothers and their more courtly and cultured brethren from the nearby town; each vying for the affections of the limited pool of eligible maidens. The dance is designed to celebrate and showcase the various stylistic differences between the Pontipee men; as in the juxtaposition of d'Amboise’s lithe pirouettes beside Tamblyn’s tumbler antics; herein augmented with a heightened sense of danger as Tamblyn balances on a set of wooden horses with an axe in hand. Gene de Paul’s hearty score (with an unaccredited assist from Adolph Deutsch, magnificently arranged by Conrad Salinger) is homespun yet kinetic; the piston-pumping bell kicks, leaps and bounds boisterously punctuated by the music.
It’s easy to see why Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ran away with the lion’s share of ticket sales, leaving the more costly Brigadoon in the proverbial dust. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers moves with an effortless agility from one scene to the next; taking full advantage of the Cinemascope frame; Donen’s direction heartfelt, yet purposeful – a balancing act resulting in a peerless stream of musical consciousness. While Brigadoon’s drama is infrequently interrupted by its musical vignettes (or is it the other way around?), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers illustrates liquidity between its songs and dances and the deceptively featherweight narrative stringing these moments together. There is a suppleness to the exercise; the audience entertained by the totality of the piece rather than its parts.
And the backdrops, while regrettably always glaringly noticeable, nevertheless seem to work in service of this story. One can choose to regret and lament MGM’s narrow-mindedness in disallowing Donen and company the ability to work in more naturalistic settings (the one painful moment still occurring as Jane Powell trills the sublime ‘Wonderful, Wonderful Day’ - a wayward sparrow, mistaking the paper mache and canvas for the real thing, inadvertently bounces off the painted mountain backdrop in a shell-shocked flutter of wings) or simply embrace the artifice as part and parcel of the movie’s theatricality and visual ‘charm’.
What sells Seven Brides for Seven Brothers are its’ performances.  Howard Keel and Jane Powell are just what the doctor ordered – timelessly appealing as the mismatched husband and wife who discover social differences don’t really amount to a hill of beans…“when you’re in love…really in love.” At one point Keel’s Adam Pontipee summarizes this kernel of wisdom thus: “Ma used to say love is like the measles…you only get it once!” Audiences have been falling in love with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ever since. The irony, of course, is that no one associated with the project, or anyone in MGM’s front offices for that matter, really knew what a treasure they had on their hands; the unexpected surge of revenue generated by the movie surprising even Stanley Donen, who warmly regarded his movie as just one of many in the queue for that particular year.
Like it or not – and most directors do not – audiences are the final judges and in 1954 they thought otherwise, or rather, better of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Ironically, despite the film’s enforced claustrophobia, one recalls most everything about the picture as being light and breezy, its folksy atmosphere augmented by Saul Chaplin and Johnny Mercer’s songs. After the opening credits (following a scruffy backwoodsman’s horse-drawn carriage through the wilderness under the main titles) the Albert Hackett, Francis Goodrich and Dorothy Kingsley screenplay begins in a small town in Oregon. Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel), the eldest of a rough and tumble brood of furriers has come in search of a few supplies for his ranch. Oh yes… and a wife. The local shopkeeper, Mr. Bixby (Russell Simpson) and his wife (Marjorie Wood) are decidedly against Adam’s fairly straight forward and unromantic approach to finding female companionship. But Millie (Jane Powell); a cook in the local restaurant has dreamt of just such a morning when she might endeavor to cook and clean for only one man.
Regrettably, Millie’s dreams are shattered when, upon returning to Adam’s cabin in the mountains, she quickly discovers she has been adopted as the matron for his six brothers who are about as unkempt and lacking in the social graces as human beings can get. Disappointed by her turn of events and own naiveté, Millie elects to make the best of her situation, keeping Adam at bay as she sets about transforming his brothers into duded up prospective suitors for some of the town’s most eligible maidens. After all, marrying them off would certainly clear out the cabin in a hurry. A bath, shave and haircut later and voila: the timber men are looking downright handsome and ripe for the picking. Alas, their etiquette could use more than a smattering of Emily Post. Here too, Millie proves a godsend, taming the savages with hints on how to go courtin’ and sparkin’ – parlor jargon, guaranteed to win any lady’s heart. To melt it doesn’t really take much doing.
Pressed and polished, the Pontipees arrive for a barn-raising at Pete Perkins’ (Howard Petrie) ranch; the epitome of masculine chic and instantly catching the eye of the town’s many maidens. The grand prize for the barn raising is a calf named Annabelle. Millie tells Adam she could really use Annabelle on the farm; thus, he forms a team made up of his brothers to raise the roof in record time. Alas, the Pontipees are up against the jealous sports who are not about to offer up their womenfolk, don’t play fair and aim to win. Having been told by Millie that the only way to truly impress a woman is through kindness, the brothers allow the town folk men to take advantage of them, before having enough and trading in their decency for a fair exchange of fists. Naturally, the more rugged Pontipees win this fight. But they lose the battle when the girls rush to nurse the wounded back to health – or, at least, consciousness.
Back at the farm, Millie patches up the brothers’ scrapes and cuts, applying witch-hazel to their open wounds and split lips. But nothing, it seems, will help ease their minds from their terrible lapse in judgment. How will they ever get wives now? Why, by force – of course; Adam relaying Plutark’s story of the Sabine women being conquered by the Romans in ye old Biblical times. What Adam fails to comprehend is how kidnapping will ever lead to romance in the present day. Time passes. The snow comes. Undaunted, Adam takes his brothers into town in the dead of night. One by one, each brother captures and makes off with the girl he met at the barn-raising; the town’s Reverend Elcott (Ian Wolfe) quickly forming a posse to make chase. At the pass, Adam deliberately sets off an avalanche; the heavy snow creating a natural barrier the townsfolk cannot overcome or bypass.
The Pontipees have won! Or have they? For upon returning to the cabin, Millie is appalled by their raucous behavior. Have they learned nothing? Apparently not. Angry with Adam, Millie exiles the lot to the barn. They can sleep with the other animals. Millie also takes in the girls in; converting the brother’s attic quarters into a sort of reformatory.  Again, time passes. The girls, who were tear-stained and sad upon their arrival have since begun to fantasize about the men who previously slept in these beds; also as to what life would be like if they were the wives of their chosen Pontipee brother; their daydreams expedited when Millie confesses she is with Adam’s child and will give birth in the Spring. In the meantime, Adam, knowing nothing of her pregnancy, goes to one of his other cabins high up in the mountains to wait out the winter alone.
When Gideon arrives to inform Adam he has a newborn daughter, only to be chastised by Adam, the two brothers get into a brief skirmish. With the snows melting, the pass becomes clear and the town’s folk prepare to storm the Pontipee ranch for their offspring. The plan is to lynch the Pontipees. However, upon hearing the cry of Millie’s babe coming from the house, every man in the rescue party assumes the worst; that one or more of their daughters has been deflowered out of wedlock. When Rev. Elcott asks the girls to be truthful and reveal whose child it is, each – in order to save their beloved from the hangman’s noose – claims the child for their own. Hence, Rev. Elcott is forced to perform a mass wedding ceremony in the presence of the rescue party – to legitimize the child’s birthright.
Buoyed by Michael Kidd’s pas d’action choreography; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers remains a delectable dish of buck-skinned bodies; their torsos, arms and legs caught in an effervescent swirl of athleticism. The score, while quaintly melodic, really doesn’t yield to the ever-lasting pop tune ilk; the Barn-Raising Ballet probably the most instantly recognizable piece of music in the film and easily one of the greatest celebrations of the dance besides. The movie endures, partly because it bucks the anticipated traditions of the Hollywood musical; also, because its pieces seem to fit so neatly together. 
Here is a movie musical that effortlessly moves from dialogue to song to dance, then back to dialogue with narrowly a hiccup. Despite its reputation for being an ensemble piece, curiously, the least utilized of the cast is Howard Keel, who avoids ever having to partake in a single dance, sings but two of the film’s most forgettable songs, then quietly steps aside for the real plot to get underway. Jane Powell is, of course, at the peak of her powers; having physically matured to the point where her always miraculous singing pipes seem to genuinely belong within the right tabernacle.  
Eschewing the amenities of courtship, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is infused with an invigorating freshness and vitality rarely seen – its brash free-spiritedness escaping from the two-dimensional screen and affecting even today’s cynical audiences with an infectious optimism.  Alas, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Cinemascope was photographed by the great George Folsey in Ansco Color. Meant to rival Technicolor’s supremacy in an industry desperate to cut costs – and considerably cheaper than its competition, Ansco also produced an inferior color image; marred by muddy tones and quite unable to produce accurate red tones. It was also discovered (too late) that Ansco’s shelf life was particularly brief and susceptible to vinegar syndrome: a general implosion/deterioration of the original camera negative within a very short period of time. 
Without the benefit of a full-blown digital restoration Warner Home Video has made the best of an abysmal situation for this 2-disc DVD offering. We get both the anamorphic Cinemascope and open matte ‘widescreen’ release herein. There are discrepancies between the standard and Cinemascope versions worth noting. The Cinemascope, shot on Ansco (Eastman) film stock, pales in both color fidelity and saturation to the open matte version. The open matte prints – oddly enough – were struck by Technicolor, yielding a far more steadfast and resilient dye transfer with infinitely more refined and robust colors. There’s also a lot more fine detail generally evident throughout the matte version. The more readily seen ‘scope’ version, despite being cleaned up for this DVD release, continues to favor a murky brown/beige palette. On the whole, it also exhibits reds that are significantly more orange and flesh tones obviously more pasty pink and/or ruddy brownish/orange.
It’s a mistake to criticize Warner Home Video for the quality of this Cinemascope transfer – at least partly – since they are already working from problematic masters. The ‘scope’ version also suffers from an inherent ‘bending’ of the image on the extreme left and right sides of the film frame (a shortcoming of early Cinemascope features) – the result: most vertical objects appear to be leaning inward rather than standing straight up. From a purely visual perspective, the less oft’ seen 1.85:1 version fares better on all fronts.
Herein, colors are infinitely more natural, Technicolor’s rainbow retaining a goodly percentage of the original hues and luster. Flesh is far more naturally reproduced and reds look ‘red’ rather than orange or slightly pink. The audio on both versions has been remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital: competently done and with solid spread across all five channels. Extras include a new audio commentary and a fairly good documentary on the making of the film; a holdover from the days when MGM/UA Home Video still held the rights to this film. The doc is hosted by Howard Keel and is presented in absolutely abysmal video quality; color bleeding, bumped contrast and a ton of video-based noise. Yuck!  We also get the original theatrical trailer.
I’m going to lead the petition for Warner’s archive division to get busy on a new Blu-ray master of this time-honored and much beloved American movie classic. Frankly, it’s a wonder – and a tad insulting – they haven’t already committed to honoring Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with a hi-def release. But again, it all boils down to time and money and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, arguably, needs a lot of each to ready it for a 1080p release. One sincerely hopes for a new photochemical restoration; also a digital scan in 4K and clean up to get things back to looking relatively sharp and pleasing. We won’t poo-poo it any further. There’s really no point. Until Warner decides it’s about time to take this transfer seriously, we’ll have to content ourselves with this middling 2-disc set. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
Cinemascope 2.5
Matted Widescreen 3.5

EXTRAS

3

Friday, May 30, 2014

JOHNNY CARSON - THE KING OF LATE NIGHT: Blu-ray (American Masters/Peter Jones Productions 2012) PBS Home Video

“By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. 
He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the ‘salto mortale’ (somersault). What’s more, he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight!”
-        Billy Wilder
When Johnny Carson bid farewell to The Tonight Show on May 22, 1992 it wasn’t simply the marked retirement of a beloved pop icon, but the real end of an era; a spectacular run as the 20th century’s most revered, admired, and undeniably, treasured figures in the history of television. Certainly, nothing before or since has come to rival Carson’s legacy. As enjoyable as Jay Leno was, he pales to Carson; as do Letterman, Ferguson, Conan O’Brien and even Arsenio Hall; once viewed by NBC’s executive brain trust as a genuine threat to Carson’s supremacy. Carson quipped that to be hailed “the king of late night” was a bit much. “Prince” would have suited him better.
Indeed, Carson came to the microphone third best after both, Steve Allen (The Tonight Show’s original host from 1954–57) and Jack Paar (1957–62) decamped for other projects. NBC, however, was unwilling to retire the show. And so, Johnny – with his many failed attempts to break into television prior to striking it rich herein, and reigning supreme from 1962 to 1992 – finally found his niche on The Tonight Show. He hit his stride with a departure from the formula Jack Paar had helped to establish and cultivate. Where Paar conducted his hosting duties, often with severity and reverence for the movers and shakers appearing as his guests, Carson took the approach to finding the lighter side in everything. For Carson The Tonight Show wasn’t so much a mood piece or even his own political soap box as a way for his audience to simply relax and unwind from the ills of the world after a long, hard day.    
Johnny once said that at the heart of any joke there is sincerity and cruelness.” And yet, in reexamining the myriad of guests who appeared on The Tonight Show, one is hard pressed to find moments when Carson jibes became uncomfortable for a laugh. Instead, Carson is self-deprecating while poking holes in the balloons of hypocrisy. Considered something of a sex symbol in the late 1970’s, perhaps because most who partook of his good nature and pithy retorts during the show’s monologue did so from the comfort of their own bedrooms after the lights had already been turned out, Carson in life was far more circumspect than flirtatious – and occasionally frank – about his three failed marriages, though faithful as a birddog during each. In retrospect, it’s the contradictions in Johnny’s private life that continue to make him so fascinatingly complex.
By his own admission, Johnny really couldn’t handle his liquor. In fact, his Jekyll into Hyde transformations remain legendary. Asked by celebrated 60 Minutes co-host, Mike Wallace to explain the aegis for Carson’s humor about alcoholism, Johnny explained the difference between good humor – or rather, jokes done in the spirit of fun – as opposed to those made out of vitriol and spite – using the example of Wilbur Mills; a Democratic representative from Arkansas who had long been the brunt of many a Carson monologue, until Johnny discovered Mills was a serious alcoholic with emotional problems. When Wallace responded with “Takes one to know one”, Carson effectively withdrew into a charming chuckle, followed by an explanation – rather than a defense – of his own battles with the bottle. “I don’t handle it well…rather than a lot of people who become fun-loving and gregarious and love everybody, I would go the opposite. I like to keep certain things private. I probably put up a barrier until I get to know people.” 
Debatably, recovering from his own habitual drinking made Johnny Carson a better host; one more accepting and mindful of other people’s foibles and personality quirks. It’s really no secret Carson’s monologues were all scripted. We’ve seen the cue cards, the pre-show prep; Carson – the consummate professional, cherry-picking one liners from a litany of writers, cribbing from the day’s events and twisting them to suit Johnny’s inimitable style. Sure, Johnny knew his way around a good gag. What remains unique about Carson is his ability to recover from a bad joke: also, his adlibs. Many a time a scripted gag laid an egg on The Tonight Show…but never Johnny. No one (and I mean no one) could think faster - or better - on their feet than Johnny Carson. When told by the reigning Mr. Universe his body was the ‘only home’ he’d ever have, Carson’s pithy retort Yes…my home is pretty messy. But I have a woman who comes in twice a week” brought down the house.
Johnny’s humor greatly benefited from his impishly playful delivery; also, his unassumingly bookish good looks. When Dolly Parton, for example, chose to confide that her breasts were real, Johnny preempted the audience’s laughter by suggesting he’d give a year’s pay to take a peak under her dress. When Zsa Zsa Gabor arrived with a preening white feline across her lap, asking Carson if he’d like to pet her pussy’, Johnny’s rebuttal, ‘Gladly – if you remove that damn cat’ sent NBC into a frenzy. It also caused one of the network’s top executives, Fred Silverman, to publicly chastise Carson for, among other things, being too risqué; also, for refusing to work Mondays and for taking ‘too much’ time off in between.
By virtue of his birth, Carson was a quiet Nebraskan who fairly craved parental acceptance – readily denied as much by his mother, who remained a remote figure, fairly critical of his life’s work. After Ruth Carson’s death it was discovered she had kept a memory box in her closet of virtually every story about her son’s many accomplishments. Clearly, Johnny was a source of pride. With regards to his four marriages, there is little to defend the fact Carson really never lived up to the illusion of his public persona; apparently more disarming when the cameras were on than he ever was behind closed doors. And Johnny’s aloofness equally put a genuine damper on his already strained relationship with three sons from his first marriage; Christopher, Cory and Richard. And yet, Carson was utterly destroyed upon learning middle child, Richard had died in a terrible car accident near Cayucos, California in 1991, even paying homage to Richard’s photographic work as part of the show. There is, of course, that certain generation of men who found it difficult – nee, impossible – to express and share their emotions. And Johnny was, to be sure, a very private man. But Carson doted on his boys in other ways; most notably, financially; affording each of them a comfortable – if, decidedly not lavish – lifestyle at his own expense.
At the height of his fame and popularity, Carson also established the John W. Carson Foundation, dedicated to supporting children, education and health services. He was immensely philanthropic in other ways too; a $5.3 million endowment to the University of Nebraska’s fine arts program, with $5 million more paid out upon the reading of his will, and another $1 million used to create the Johnny Carson Opportunity Scholarship Fund. Johnny’s hometown of Norfolk also benefited from the Carson Cancer Center, the Elkhorn Valley Museum and the Johnny Carson Theater. Finally, in 2010, it was revealed Carson had been quietly squirrelling away $156 million from personal investments to augment his foundation’s charitable works; making the Carson Foundation the largest Hollywood charity of its kind.
By now, Carson had become a media institution, responding to his detractors with the threat of quitting at the height of his popularity; a move, David Brinkley equated to George Washington asking to be removed from the American one dollar bill. Mercifully, it never happened, although Carson would remain critical of NBC for the rest of their contentious alliance, often with subtle jabs made during his monologue – as when telling the audience in honor of his birthday NBC gave him the day ‘on’; or more directly, when asked by Ed McMahon what his life’s goal was, Johnny responded with “…to be a good person, a worthy citizen, and to rip NBC off for everything they’ve got!”
While the mood on The Tonight Show always seemed convivial to downright boisterous – even the embarrassing moments (as in the one and only time sidekick, Ed McMahon infamously turned up drunk and emotional, forcing Carson to play tender nursemaid to his bruised feelings while the audience gasped and roared in tandem) the reality was perhaps far more telling of Carson’s own private uncomfortableness in his own skin. On occasion this insecurity would overwhelm his public persona. But it also created something of an invisible wall of defense between Johnny and his guests. The New Yorker’s Kenneth Tynan put it thus: “The other talk shows in which I have taken part were all saunas by comparison with Carson’s. Merv Griffin is the most disarming of ego strokers; Mike Douglas runs him a close second in the ingratiation stakes; and Dick Cavett creates the illusion that he is your guest, enjoying a slightly subversive private chat. Carson, on the other hand, operates on a level of high, freewheeling, centrifugal banter that is well above the snow line. Which is not to say that he is hostile. Carson treats you with deference and genuine curiosity. But the air is chill; you are definitely on probation.”
Carson was, of course, working with the most extraordinary talents of our time; borrowing from a nearly inexhaustible pool of Hollywood alumni that included such favorites as Bette Davis, James Stewart and Doris Day, while also bringing out contemporary favorites like Michael Landon, Bette Midler, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles and Robin Williams. Carson also introduced more up and comers on The Tonight Show than perhaps even Ed Sullivan; his legacy as a star maker witnessed in the meteoric rise of such beloved comedians as Brett Butler, Ellen DeGeneres, Leno and Letterman. But, like the hand of God, Carson’s own benevolence could also swing the other way; as when frequent Tonight Show sub-in, Joan Rivers elected not to tell Johnny until the eleventh hour that her option had been picked up by CBS for a show of her own. The wound inflicted by what Carson regarded as a complete betrayal, ultimately ended their lifelong friendship. The pair never spoke again.
All of this fertile history – and much, much more – is readily on display in American Masters tribute to the man and his legacy: Johnny Carson – The King of Late Night (2012). At just under 2 hours, produced by Emmy-winning filmmaker Peter Jones and narrated with great sincerity by Kevin Spacey, this affecting and informative biography is as intriguing as the man of the hour. Chocked full of snippets from The Tonight Show, and a myriad of reflections from Johnny’s friends (including Steve Martin, Dick Cavett, Letterman, Joan Rivers, Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Bob Newhart and many others), Johnny Carson – The King of Late Night is required viewing for anyone who wants to remember Carson in his prime and bask in the afterglow of one of the greatest all-around entertainers of his – or any other – generation. Clearly, the project was a labor of love for Jones, who had engaged Carson for fifteen years with an annual letter extoling his passion to do a biography. While cordial (Carson presumably told Jones You write a damn fine letter…but I don’t have anything more to say), Johnny remained disinterested in the project. Following Carson’s death in 2005, Jones pursued the matter through Carson’s nephew, Jeff Sotzing; the president of Carson Entertainment Group.
Watching Johnny Carson – The King of Late Night is like visiting an old friend not seen in far too many years, catching up on the past, living vicariously through the ‘good ole days’ and coming away from the experience with that warm – yet strangely sad – and far-away tear caught in the eye; perhaps in the realization the times have moved on; that what once was, can never be again. Jones’ documentary has done more than pay homage to Johnny Carson, the man, the entertainer and the legend. It has resurrected a sumptuous memoir (a valentine, actually) to the golden age of Johnny Carson’s America. Here is a potpourri of moments sure to make us smile; Sotzing’s complicity in the endeavor allowing Jones (and by extension, the rest of us) an unprecedented backstage pass into Johnny’s world. Perhaps, Carson would have hated this; his penchant for privacy superseding any perceived entertainment value from the exercise. And yet, entertainment is exactly what’s to be had herein; with a capital ‘E’ and not just for ‘effort’ either.
Owing to a bitter and ongoing feud Carson had with NBC for most of their tempestuous alliance (Johnny even threatened to walk off The Tonight Show, buying back the rights to all his archived episodes after NBC admittedly ‘lost’ several early seasons) The Tonight Show: starring Johnny Carson remains diligently mothballed in an underground vault in Kansas – roughly 3,500 hours, since digitized and made available as an online pay-per-view.  What remains fairly perplexing is just how little of The Tonight Show has been released to home video in all these many years since Johnny’s passing. Only a few heavily truncated offerings, featuring little more than selected sound bytes from Johnny’s tenure, many poorly mastered at that, have surfaced on DVD, with ‘Tonight’: Four Decades of The Tonight Show – starring Johnny Carson being the biggest transgressor. Will we ever see The Tonight Show justly anthologized as complete and unedited whole seasons on Blu-ray? Hmmmm.
Debatable, since Carson Entertainment Group seems wholly disinterested in the prospect. The various DVDs currently in print are but wan ghost flowers of The Tonight Show in its prime; excising virtually all of Doc Severinsen’s orchestral performances. We also have yet to see any of Bette Davis’ memorable appearances on ANY of these DVD sets. The Vault Series presently being circulated as ‘complete’ episodes are actually slightly altered from their original broadcast length.  Hence, the first real competent assessment of Johnny Carson’s legacy remains this American Masters bio. It too may not be comprehensive – but it is by far the most heartfelt and legitimate attempt to critique, understand, and ultimately celebrate Johnny Carson as the national treasure he so obviously was, is and will always be. 
Prepare to be royally entertained. PBS’s Blu-ray is presented in 1.78:1 with most of the vintage Carson clips retaining their 1.33:1 framing. The home movie footage, as well as stills are all reframed and the newly instated interview footage is, of course, formatted for widescreen presentation.  Arguably, you’re not watching reruns of The Tonight Show for their video quality, and yet there is some remarkable effort put forth herein to bring these vintage materials into line with modern expectations for audio/video clarity. Bottom line: you won’t be disappointed by this disc. While some inevitable image ‘banding’ remains the overall BD retains a brightly graphic quality; the older footage looking remarkably clean and free of distracting age-related artifacts. Wow and thank you!  
The image is both colorful and detailed, revealing – at times – a startling amount of information in clothing, hair, etc. with video noise kept to a bare minimum. Hence, this is Johnny Carson as we’d like to remember him: the undisputed king of late night in a princely presentation on home video. The 2.0 Dolby Digital sound mix is, of course, largely at the mercy of vintage materials. The newly recorded interviews, as well as Kevin Spacey’s narration are all frontally placed, presumably to keep their fidelity in check with the vintage clips; no jarring jumps from the show’s original mono to stereo surround.
Parting thoughts are rather obvious but worth mentioning. While Carson Entertainment continues to sit on a goldmine, the legacy of Johnny Carson comes across loud and clear in Peter Jones’ exquisite biography.  Johnny Carson was more than a late night talk show host. He was a legend in his own time – one that continues to ripen with age and is still primed for the podium. In reflecting on his career, Carson remained perfectly balanced on that tightrope between introspective humility and glib repartee, beginning with The first week after I leave the show, could you all line up in front of my house for a couple of hours? Then come in, I'll sit at a desk, and we can talk” before concluding his formidable reign with a faintly sad epitaph, “If I could magically do it all over again, I would. I bid you all a very heartfelt goodnight.”
One fact is irrefutable: there will never be another Johnny Carson. As good as Leno and presently, Jimmy Fallon are, either from a lack of good material or even more astutely observed – the absence of those truly inimitable Hollywood icons who once shared the stage with Johnny - they’ve paled by comparison. It isn’t entirely their fault. For Johnny Carson gave aspiring late night television talk show hosts an act virtually impossible to follow. Heeeeeeeere’s (to) Johnny!
Bottom line: very highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS

0 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

TWO RODE TOGETHER: Blu-ray (Columbia 1961) Twilight Time

Billed as “the west’s most violent story and valiant hour”, director John Ford once referred to Two Rode Together (1961) as “the worst piece of crap I’ve done in twenty years!” Hardly. What Ford considered excrement, the rest of us have come to treasure in the many years since its release. Two Rode Together is a far more engaging movie than most critics of their day gave it credit; also fairly revealing of Ford’s new and profoundly bittersweet trajectory in his mythologizing of the American west. He’s come a long way from the picturesque mesas and towering buttresses of Monument and Death Valley, endlessly and lovingly eulogized in movies like Fort Apache (1947), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and My Darling Clementine (1946).  Gone is the magisterial quality of these better known and more beloved masterworks; replaced herein by a brittle angst and more probing cruelty to deny us the legends and folklore Ford almost single-handedly was responsible for instilling as substitutions for the real American western experience. Ford’s curmudgeonly reflections in Two Rode Together may have inevitably worsened with the passage of time, also amplified by the loss of character actor, Ward Bond, one of the beloved alumni in Ford’s stock company – appearing in virtually every western the director made.
The similarities between Two Rode Together and Ford’s opus magnum, The Searchers (1956) are irrefutable and bear mentioning. Here is a tale told by an artist unafraid to carry over the ugliness of bigotry and racism almost exclusively ascribed to his anti-hero, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) in the former endeavor, but now more broadly attributed to virtually all of the settler class and military personnel who inhabit this stark and uncompromising landscape they have neither become accustom to nor, arguably, have even the right to call their home. It’s a brave creative type who can stand such time-honored precepts he helped to create on their end, unapologetically rewriting history (or rather, fiction) yet again, in order to bring the more unflattering realities of history itself to light. And Ford offers us little to no reprieve from the inherent unattractiveness of his story. Even the comedic elements in Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay are tinged in spite.
Although Two Rode Together is often misjudged as inferior to Ford’s own The Searchers, it is a nevertheless powerful indictment of lost hope and a thoroughly fascinating deconstruction of Ford’s own disillusionment with both his personal life and professional career. By 1960, the director who had once commanded respect from studio execs was being judged as more a liability than an asset. Ford, who could be known to be his own worst enemy in wanting his way in all things, particularly when things weren’t going his way at all, was not entirely to blame for the shift – or rather, loss of his authority. Hollywood had changed; the system faltering under governmental pressures and television’s insidious erosion of bankable butts in the seats at the local Bijoux or elegant mid-town movie palace. It wasn’t a modicum of fear lurking around the corners any more, but a genuine and frosty sense that the old ways in Hollywood had suddenly, and inexplicably, come to a definite end. The smashing of Hollywood’s autonomy as the sole purveyors of star-studded popcorn entertainments was, by extension, a devastating blow to Ford’s ego; hindering his ability to assemble the cast and crew he preferred at a moment’s notice.
Nevertheless, Two Rode Together is blessed with familiar faces working both in front of and behind the camera; screenwriter, Frank S. Nugent (who also wrote The Searchers) cribbing from Will Cook’s blistering 1960 novel, Comanche Captives; Ford’s favorite comic relief, Andy Devine as the befuddled Sgt. Darius P. Posey; John McIntire as stoic, Maj. Frazer; Anna Lee (busybody, Mrs. Malaprop); Jeanette Nolan (Mrs. Mary McCandless, half mad with grief over the loss of her only son), Henry Brandon (reincarnated from The Searchers in similar garb and feathers as Chief Quanah Parker), John Qualen (doing a variation on his stock lovable Swed’ as Ole Knudsen) and Harry Carey Jr. as Ortho Clegg – one of a pair of halfwits reared without the ‘feminine influence’. To this mix, Ford brought the prolific and remarkably versatile composer, George Duning to write the sobering underscore; a world-weary ode to this gallant, if fading memoire of western frontier mythologies.
The stars of Two Rode Together are new to Ford’s pantheon; Richard Widmark as First Lt. Jim Gary,  long since broken loose from his wild-eyed Tommy Udo/Jefty screen persona and undeniably the nobler of our two anti-heroic misanthropes on this vision quest with no proverbial happy ending in sight. The other half belongs to James Stewart; his own career in transition away from everyone’s loveable everyman. Stewart had come close several times to working with Ford. In Two Rode Together he is wholly unscrupulous as the graft-driven Marshal Guthrie McCabe who gets ‘ten percent of everything’ – including the bordello – in this tiny hamlet of Tascosa. McCabe couldn’t care less about reuniting a small sect of grief-stricken families with their offspring, wives and lovers kidnapped by the Comanche some five years ago – unless, that is, the army can make it worth his while. Eighty dollars a month doesn’t really cut it, so McCabe elects to charge by the head for his services, though he bitterly doubts there will be anyone left to return to these misguided hopefuls.
Indeed, there is an uncharacteristic darkness and often grotesque cynicism permeating virtually every frame of Two Rode Together; Ford relentlessly stripping away any residual illusions the audience might have about the gallantry and/or nobility of the ‘old west.’  The Indians are, of course, still the enemies of this piece; cut from that relatively familiar swath as steely-eyed savages. But within the Comanche communal structure, Ford manages to implant seeds of further dissention, to vary and defy our time-honored western misnomer of one race/one mindset; establishing an inner conflict between enterprising half-caste, Chief Quanah – who values nothing except the point of a gun, and the traditionalist pure blood – and blood-thirsty – Mohawk warrior, Stone Calf (played with considerable aplomb by the towering and impossibly muscled Woody Strode).
By contrast, it’s the settler class who seems incredibly singular in their convictions; wounded, lost and desolate souls united only by their grieving and pursuit to learn what became of their loved ones already lost to them for all time. Even feisty Marty Purcell (Shirley Jones) – vicariously living half her life for a kidnapped brother by dressing in frontier man’s attire and eschewing virtually any and all feminine and/or romantic advances, is something of a lost cause; albeit one salvaged at the last possible moment by Gary’s feeble proposal of marriage and Marty’s very awkward acceptance.
Two Rode Together is unapologetically bleak. Arguably, it plays far better today, removed from the cowboys and Indians milieu once dominating popular entertainment with cardboard misinterpretations of life on the ponderosa. We begin in Tascosa, an isolated and very dusty outpost overseen by laconic Marshal Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart); a man so unprincipled that even the mention of his name is enough to frighten off a pair of duded up gamblers (William Henry and Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan) initially intent on scaring up some rough trade business at the local saloon/whorehouse, run by very icy madam, Belle Aragon (Annelle Hayes). Belle can’t stand the sight of any man before noon – except, perhaps McCabe, whom she tolerates in increments, affords ten percent off the top, and, plies with free beer served to him on her veranda.
Enter Lieutenant Jim Gary (Richard Widmark) with his military patrol and Sgt. Darius P. Posey (Andy Devine) in tow. McCabe respects Gary. He has little use for Posey. The feeling, alas, is mutual. Gary is on a mission, assigned by Army Major Fraser (John McIntire) to recover survivors of a Comanche ambush five years removed from the present day. It’s a fool’s errand and McCabe knows it. The Comanche have mated, killed or sold their captives to other tribes in the interim. And McCabe, despite his tin star, isn’t particularly interested in upholding the law; at least, not without a sincere profit to be made as a direct result. Fraser offers McCabe eighty dollars a month. But McCabe is callous and more interested in what he can squeeze out of the settlers, desperate to be reunited with their kin.
And so the bartering for human lives begins. At least at some level, McCabe seems – if not empathetic – then, at least, intent in sobering up the relatives. He’s harsh and unflinching in his crude assessment of the situation; also, regrettably, closer to the truth than anyone else would care to admit. Some, like Ole Knudsen – anxious for news of his kidnapped daughter, Freda (Teri York) or Mary McCandless – having lost touch with reality and ready to see the face of her son, Tommy in any male child McCabe might bring back – will never surrender the fantasy their loved ones are still alive and struggling to return home to them. At some level, Gary recognizes the futility, though he is far more optimistic about becoming a potential love interest for Marty Purcell. But Gary will do as his regimental command dictates.
Hence, both men set off in search of victims; McCabe negotiating a truce – the exchanged of firearms and knives with Chief Quanah Parker – for the return of two hostages; Running Wolf (David Kent), later revealed as Marty’s long lost brother, and, Elena de la Madriaga (Linda Cristal); Stone Calf’s squaw. McCabe and Gary also briefly come in contact with Freda – driven insane in her captive state – and Mrs. Hannah Clegg (Mae Marsh) who emphatically pleads to keep her survival a secret from her husband, Rev. Henry (Ford Rainey) and their two – now adult – sons; Greeley (Ken Curtis) and Ortho.  Departing the Comanche camp with the very defiant Running Wolf bound to one steed and Elena reluctantly following of her own free will on another, McCabe and Gary reach a parting of the ways over their conflicted decisions about what to tell the families back home.
McCabe threatens Gary at the point of his gun; the latter electing to go on ahead with Running Wolf while McCabe stays behind to make camp for the night with Elena. Around the campfire, Elena tells McCabe about the soldier she once loved and was engaged to marry. She also confesses her apprehensions about returning to ‘civilized society’ where she knows she will be harshly judged. McCabe endeavors to quell Elena’s fears; alas, soon to be well-founded. But an ambush by Stone Calf resurrects Elena’s horror; McCabe making short shrift of his attacker with a single bullet.
Back at base camp, Gary attempts to return Running Wolf to his rightful family. However, no one will claim this savage who makes every attempt to escape his captors. Mrs. McCandless pleads with her husband, William (Cliff Lyons) to recognize the boy as their own. And although Will knows damn well Running Wolf is not his son, he placates his grief-stricken wife with the satisfaction of assuming the role as the boy’s father; alas, with very tragic results. For given the first opportunity to flee and return to the Comanche, Running Wolf stabs Mary McCandless in the heart with a knife; her murder leading to Running Wolf recapture and lynching by the angry mob moments before Marty realizes the wild-eyed defiant is actually her long lost brother; Running Wolf’s memory stirred by the music box in her possession.
McCabe returns to base camp with Elena, lying to Ole about Freda while attempting to make a lady of Elena with the help of Mrs. Abby Frazer (Olive Carey); the empathetic Major’s wife. However, introducing Elena at the military dance, McCabe quickly discovers both he and his date are persona non grata; the womenfolk impudent in their nosy inquiries about Elena’s sexual history, the men priggish as they casually spurn even the prospect of sharing a spin around the dance floor. Gary proposes to Marty in the shadows. Having miraculously recovered from her own personal grief, Marty is now ready to embrace her future as the wife of this dyed in the wool military man. At the same time, McCabe has had quite enough of this uppity class’s slum prudery and elects to take Elena home with him to Tascosa. However, upon his return, McCabe quickly realizes Belle has replaced him in her boudoir with Deputy Ward Corby (Chet Douglas); a simpleton and McCabe’s former underling, who now commands the authority as Tascosa’s new marshal.
Belle is brazen in her admonishment of Elena, calling her out as a half-caste who will never truly be a lady. Darting for the stagecoach, tear-stained and shell-shocked, Elena is pursued by McCabe. He has finally decided to make her his wife. Asked by Belle to explain McCabe’s sudden change of heart – or rather, his uncanny acquisition of this unlikely appendage, where before only a void seemed to exist, Gary glibly replies, “I guess he finally found something he wanted more than ten percent of!”  
In this penultimate reconciliation, John Ford is at least attempting to lighten the general tenor of Two Rode Together; a groundswell of George Duning’s thematic score filling the ear as a cloud of dust trails behind the departing stage for California with Elena and McCabe on board. In fact, this is a fitting conclusion; one aspiring to illustrate goodness in every man, even one as morally bankrupt as Guthrie McCabe. To some extent, James Stewart’s cache as Hollywood’s ‘every man’ helps to convince us that the life Elena and McCabe are bound for, presumably to share in together, will be both meaningful and tinged with tenderness. Yet, there is very little in McCabe’s makeup to suggest as much.
In one of only a handful of performances given by Stewart throughout his illustrious tenure, he manages to convey a fascinating emotional complexity, utterly at odds with our public perception of his more straight forward and beloved public persona; his eyes beady and constantly shifting, his voice low and threatening as he stares down Richard Widmark at the point of a gun; the familiar quaver in his voice now ironically imbued with strains of uncharacteristic bitterness and contempt as he explains to McCabe’s contemporaries – if only to satisfy their insidious curiosity – why Elena chose to survive her ordeal rather than kill herself; because her Catholic beliefs regard suicide as a sin.  
Two Rode Together is deceptively flamboyant, even as it remains one of John Ford’s more low key endeavors. The buddy/buddy relationship between McCabe and Gary is the stuff of cinema dreams. This isn’t a friendship, per say, and yet there is a far deeper appreciation shared by these men of action than perhaps either is even initially aware exists. At one point, John Ford and his cinematographer, Charles Lawton Jr. hold steady on a two shot of James Stewart and Richard Widmark; Ford utterly confident in the ability of his performers to sustain the drama exclusively with their exchange of dialogue: eight and a half minutes of expository human bing-bang without a single cut, not even to favor either actor with a close-up. Two Rode Together is an exquisite work of genius, considered as ‘minor’ only because John Ford gave himself a very tough act to follow; an impressive and unparalleled canon of movie magic.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via a sparkling new 1080p transfer from Sony Home Entertainment, is a most gratifying affair, alas, at the mercy of Eastman/Pathe’s notorious film stock that, on occasion renders the image slightly soft and with a very murky palette. Mercifully, the image is mostly razor-sharp and filled with excellent detail, eye-popping hues and a modicum of film grain accurately reproduced. Thank Grover Crisp and Sony’s technological wizards for working miracles on inferior and improperly stored elements; willing most of the vibrancy of Two Rode Together’s opening night splendor back from the brink for this home video presentation.  
Things definitely snap together, the image remarkably free of age-related debris and artifacts. When the vintage elements align with Crisp’s meticulous restoration/preservation efforts, we are treated to a very fine overriding arc of quality; the ‘wow’ factor revealed in gorgeous hi-def background detail in foliage, dust, wood grain, etc. Alas, the Eastman/Pathe process intermittently betrays these efforts, even from shot to shot; color and detail occasionally faltering (mostly in long shot); looking slightly out of focus. There’s also a queer moiré pattern happening in the reverse shot near the end of the film, when Elena (already aboard the stagecoach) catches the welcomed reflection of McCabe in her jewelry box mirror. All of these aforementioned shortcomings are quite minor and indigenous to the source material – not the fault of this hi-def mastering. So kudos is, decidedly, in order and well deserved.
The 1.0 DTS is exceptionally nuanced for a mono track, with clearly delineated dialogue and effects. Modestly disappointing is TT’s lack of extras on this disc. We do get their usual commitment to an isolated score showcasing George Duning’s marvelous efforts, and a theatrical trailer. But that’s it. Popular opinion still regards Two Rode Together as an inconsequential among John Ford’s many great works of art. But I prefer it as an ‘as yet’ undiscovered tour de force by a master craftsman, the likes of which – sadly – we’ll probably never know again. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

1

FATE IS THE HUNTER/TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1964/Redwind Productions 2012) Twilight Time

Ralph Nelson’s Fate is the Hunter (1964) bears an uncanny resemblance to Jean Negulesco’s 1952 potboiler, Phone Call from a Stranger; a fairly straight forward tale about people brought together after a tragic loss of life in the blink of an eye following the crash of a commercial airliner. Apart from the movie’s title, very little remains of Ernest K. Gann’s bestseller on which the movie is supposedly based; screenwriter Harold Medford aspiring to little more than a ‘nuts and bolts’ investigation of Consolidated Airways Flight 22. Medford’s approach to Gann’s operatic material is pedestrian at best. And Gann, who actually began in earnest to write his own screenplay before throwing in the towel, forever regretted this decision – not so much for Medford’s mangling of his central plot or even the distillation of the novel’s piquancy into timid textbook melodrama, but rather, because he received no residuals whenever this movie was replayed on television (and in the late 1970’s and early 80’s it played a lot!).
As scripted by Medford, the plot revolves around stewardess, Martha Webster (Suzanne Pleshette), who just might be able to piece together the clues for Consolidated Airline’s CEO Sam McBane (Glenn Ford). Alas, Medford’s screenplay is fairly mechanical. His use of the flashback to resurrect the late Capt. Jack Savage (played with roguish aplomb by Rod Taylor), and thus providing us with a bit of personal backstory contrary to the frame-up presently taking place inside Consolidated’s damage control command center, (sure…let’s blame the crash on pilot error – a dead man who cannot defend himself) is not altogether successful.  In the movie’s climactic reenactment of the perilous events that brought down Flight 22, it all boils down to a cup of coffee; bad timing, engine failure and the presence of a wooden pier scheduled for demolition two weeks earlier – in short – fate: that omnipotent set of circumstances conspiring against we mere mortals.
Fate is the Hunter is a noticeably cumbersome and not terribly prepossessing melodrama – owing part of its problematic pacing to director Nelson’s insistence on conducting the affair as something of a noir police procedural from the 1940’s. The movie’s salvation comes partly from its performances, predominantly Glenn Ford’s cleverly cryptic/outwardly caustic man of action, determined to get to the bottom of things even if it means dashing to pieces his competitive prospects for a promotion within the company. Flight 22’s disaster could not have been more ill-timed for McBane, locked in a heated race for the presidency with wily coworker, Ben Sawyer (Nehemiah Persoff); the latter, only too eager to buy into the scenario Savage was drunk and therefore solely responsible for the crash.  Alas, even this revelation does come first to Sawyer – something of a conflicted, backstabbing corporate stooge; the nugget implanted by a little bit of investigative journalism from ambulance chaser/eleven o’clock newshound, Dan Crawford (Max Showalter). According to Crawford’s sources, Savage was spotted at several bars around town with confirmed drunkard, Mickey Doolan (40’s second-string heartthrob, Mark Stevens, herein effectively gaunt and careworn in a startling departure from his ensconced pop image).
It will take McBane the better half of the movie’s 106 minutes to track Doolan down; also to piece together inklings with the help of empathetic radio controller, Ralph Bundy (Wally Cox); Savage’s latest fling, the queerly philosophical marine biologist, Sally Fraser (Nancy Kwan) and his former flame, Lisa Bond (Dorothy Malone as a thoroughly heartless Marilyn Monroe knock-off who doesn’t allow a society soiree to intrude upon her…um…grief). Alas, Fate is the Hunter plays to the stereotype of the cold-blooded corporation, in this case, helmed by the unscrupulous Dillon (Bert Freed), Proctor (Robert F. Simon) and Mark Hutchins (Howard St. John), who almost immediately upon getting wind of Savage’s pre-flight bar-hopping escapades, decide to pin sole responsibility for the crash on him; skewing the reassembled evidence, including a flight box recording of Flight 22’s last airborne moments, and encouraging McBane to thrown Savage’s reputation under the proverbial bus for sake of saving the company’s face – also, his own skin; hopefully to avoid some very expensive and soon to follow lawsuits from victim’s survivors.
It would be all too easy for McBane to do simply this. After all, Jack Savage was hardly a friend; more like a barely tolerated coworker; Savage too brash and cocky for his own good. No, Jack Savage was not very likeable except as the devil-may-care ‘love ‘em and leave ‘em’ lady’s man to whom all life’s advantages came much too easily, garnering envy as everybody’s ‘good time Joe’ – a very thin sheath indeed, masking their abject contempt for the man. Even McBane’s secretary/love interest, Peg Burke (Constance Towers) – only interested in seeing her man’s chances for the presidency not go up in flames – and Savage’s landlady, Mrs. Llewlyn (played with nattering perfection by Mary Wickes) have their stake in wrecking Savage’s ‘good name’. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, Savage’s reputation as a hotshot pilot is impeccable. He would never think to gamble his career on a binge just before takeoff. 
During the war years, Savage thwarted McBane’s chances for a ‘date’ with actress, Jane Russell (Russell, playing herself) by sending McBane on a wild goose chase. Male machismo and animosity aside, the more level-headed and introspective McBane secretly admired Savage; or, at least, Savage’s bon vivant defiance; not to play by the rules and/or live up to everyone else’s expectations. McBane, however, has always been ‘by the book’. He may not live life to its fullest, but there’s a conscious thread of honesty permeating his life’s work. It’s precisely this quality as the noble company whore and McBane’s repeated attack of conscience that will lead him to dispel the myth about Savage’s incompetence; speaking truth for a man who perhaps never gave even the concept of genuineness much thought in life, and now, can no longer offer even an appraisal of it in his own defense.
Fate is the Hunter begins with a riveting pre-title prologue; the disastrous last minutes of Consolidated’s Flight 22. Savage confides in McBane shortly before takeoff, that he suspects McBane is on the rise within the company hierarchy – soon to become its new president. McBane reminds Savage of Ben Sawyer, also up for the job. Moreover, Sawyer knows how to manipulate the variables to win this race. But if wily deception is the only way to ascend to the top, then McBane would just as soon have none of it. Thus, we enter the plane with stewardesses, Martha Webster and D’Arcy (Marianna Case); the latter a last minute replacement who has already caught the eye of our randy captain, despite the fact he has two women on the go on the ground; fair-weather good time gal, Lisa Bond, and devoted – though hardly naïve – Sally Fraser.  We briefly meet a few of the nameless passengers on board; one (Jim Boles) having taken out an exorbitant life insurance policy just prior to the flight (suggesting a possible terrorist plot, immediately contemplated by Consolidated’s brain trust after the crash, but thereafter just as quickly dispelled) and four year old, Angela Dawson – on her way to visit her grandmother in Seattle.
The preflight checklist cleared by Savage and his copilot, Flight 22 takes off. However, almost immediately it experiences engine failure. Savage remains calm and collected as he requests permission to land. Alas, the fates have conspired against the passengers and crew; three incoming planes deferring Flight 22’s emergency landing to a sandy stretch of beach. It ought to have been manageable, if only the contractor assigned to tear down a rickety wooden pier had done his job on schedule.  Regrettably, the pier remains intact, Flight 22 slamming into the embankment nose first and bursting into a hellish ball of flames. In an instant, fifty-four lives are lost; McBane and a gaggle of news-hungry reporters rushing down the tarmac to inspect the wreckage for survivors. Only three are pulled alive from the twisted metal – two dying en route to hospital – and one; stewardess, Martha, left to tearfully lament how she could have made it through this nightmarish ordeal in one piece.  
Thus, begins McBane’s investigation of the facts; momentarily interrupted when TV reporter, Dan Crawford shares his tidbit of information with Dillion, Proctor and Hutchins; that Savage may have been flying under the influence. McBane refuses to believe it. After all, he saw Savage just prior to takeoff; collected, suave and self-aggrandizing as ever. Recovery of the flight recorder reveals no such lapses in judgment either or slurred outbursts by Savage just before the plane went down.  No, something other than pilot error must be responsible for this terrible loss of life. In short order, McBane tracks down friends who knew Savage best, discovering kindred spirits in Sally, Ralph and Mickey that will help exonerate Savage’s public image from any wrong doing. 
Fate is the Hunter might have had more to offer if it just stuck with this exculpatory reconnaissance. Instead, Harold Medford’s screenplay regresses into a lengthy and decidedly tedious flashback set during the war, triggered by McBane’s discovery of a garter dangling off the mantelpiece inside Savage’s rented bungalow. We see McBane and Savage in their younger years as two pilots in the South Seas; Savage already full of himself as he usurps McBane’s chances for a ‘date’ with USO singer, Jane Russell (won fair and square after McBane catches the garter Russell tosses into the audience). But Savage doesn’t play by the rules – particularly where women are concerned. He also has no compunction about advertising his playful dishonesty; recklessly driving his jeep with Russell in tow past McBane and the other envious flyers. If McBane wanted to, he could choose to hate Savage on principle alone. Alas, McBane is the more introspective and forgiving sort; recognizing he could never play the part of the lone wolf convincingly. Hence, he allows Savage to have his kicks and way with the ‘fate’ life has dealt them both.
The device of a movie flashback can reveal new information otherwise unable to be relayed to the audience. But in Fate is the Hunter’s case it just takes up a fair chunk of the movie’s runtime; perhaps, because without it Medford’s screenplay really doesn’t have all that much to say and has already painted itself into an impossible narrative corner. Returning to the present, McBane attempts to give testimony at the public inquest, contrary to the wishes of his superiors; upholding Savage’s honor and integrity by suggesting Martha’s theory of a double engine failure moments before the crash is actually correct, despite the physical evidence: Flight 22’s second engine was recovered from the wreck virtually intact and seemingly in perfect working order. To prove his point, McBane elects to take an empty plane – Consolidated’s Flight 24 – on the same fateful trajectory as its predecessor, encouraging Martha to partake in his experiment. She understandable refuses out of fear at first, but then comes to McBane’s aid with cathartic professionalism. With McBane assuming Savage’s role, the crew reenact the fateful last moments of Flight 22; Martha bringing McBane a cup of coffee and placing it at arm’s reach, just as she had done for Savage.
As the first engine deliberately cuts out, Flight 24 experiences some minor turbulence, toppling the coffee cup and spilling its contents inside the control panel. This short circuits not only engine number two, but also the plane’s radar communications. McBane fires up the undamaged engine and manages to land his plane successfully. Realizing a coffee cup and a design flaw in the control panel played an integral role in the crash, McBane is confident Savage will be cleared of any wrong doing. He did his best in an impossible situation; failing only because ‘fate’ had conspired against him. In these final moments, McBane encourages Martha to meet the others who were instrumental in believing in his investigation when almost everyone else merely sought the quickest route to a convenient scapegoat.
Fate is the Hunter lacks in consistent dramatic impetus, marginally made up by its taut and convincing performances. Of these, Glenn Ford’s is the standout and, to a lesser extent, Nancy Kwan, Suzanne Pleshette and Rod Taylor.  These are very fine actors capable of more than the Harold Medford screenplay offers them. At times, the exchange of dialogue is woefully absent of something intelligent to say, the riveting high-stakes drama diffused into marginal conversations that systematically drag us from one plot point to the next with virtually no suspense. The story waffles in banal and occasionally, dead end vignettes; the pointless inclusion of Jane Russell (who is featured with a song no less) really stalling the plot. Fate is the Hunter’s ace in the hole is Milton Krasner’s superb B&W cinematography; always discovering fascinating ways to fill the vast expanses of Cinemascope with compelling compositions. When all else fails, we can admire and appreciate the look of this movie, even as its plot continues to lumber from one boring backstory to the next.   
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, via their alliance with 2oth Century-Fox, yields a middling 1080p transfer. The pluses: razor sharp clarity and consistent contrast levels - very rich, deep and velvety blacks and whites that are never blooming. Although this transfer reveals a stellar amount of fine detail throughout and considerable amounts of indigenous film grain accurately rendered, the image is also infrequently marred by gate weave and wobble, and, vertical streaks and modeling; also plagued by a barrage of age-related nicks, chips and scratches. Honestly, a simple (though somewhat costly) blue wash would have filled in a lot of these time-inflicted anomalies. Fox, however, seems to be slipping back into its habit of ‘hit or miss’ remastering, depending on how valid they believe a title is for receiving the full treatment.  The bigger transgressor here is the 1.0 DTS audio; very strident sounding. Even Jerry Goldsmith’s sparse score is grating on the ear. Jane Russell’s song is painfully screechy. Extras include TT’s isolated score and an audio commentary featuring Nick Redman and co-star Nancy Kwan.
Now for the biggest reason of all to buy this disc: Brian Jamieson’s lyrical ‘letter of introduction’ to the world of, Nancy Kwan – “To Whom It May Concern: Ka Shen’s Journey” (2010) – a seminal biography of this Eurasian/American beauty who defied Hollywood’s racial barriers and stereotypes to dazzle us in films like The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Flower Drum Song (1961). Kwan’s poignant and largely untold story is the sort of rags to riches from which both daydreams and fairytales are stitched together. However, like the best of fantasy, Kwan’s familial saga is also tinged in heartrending tragedy – though arguably, never personal regrets.
Ironically, few biographical accounts aspire to breathe life into their subject matter. Jamieson’s is the exception to this rule: a superbly relayed, evocative valentine to Nancy Kwan: his juxtaposition of Kwan’s career with her more intimate and probing search beyond those bittersweet kernels of truth, suppressed in youth, are the starburst in Kwan’s own sunset of middle-age exploration, and, at the crux of this poignant cinematic memoire.  I’ll just go on record here and state that To Whom It May Concern could so easily have been a standalone Twilight Time release, or paired up with either of the aforementioned undisputed hits in Kwan’s movie repertoire. 
Here is a tale so clearly told by people in love with Nancy Kwan; culled from a myriad of personal and unvarnished reflections put forth by family and friends – also from Kwan herself, and introspectively narrated by TT’s Nick Redman, who adds an immeasurable air of authority to this conversation. Kwan’s own 2008 return to Hong Kong, for the ballet interpretation of Suzie Wong, provides the momentum, as well as bookends for this outpouring of personal reflection.  While I didn’t particularly care for Fate is the Hunter, I absolutely adored To Whom It May Concern. It is an expressively joyful, yet angst-ridden, life-affirming masterpiece. Better still, great care has been taken to remaster this biography in hi-def. The 1080p image is, for the most part, breathtaking. Inserts from Kwan’s movie classics looks incredible. I was blown away by the remarkable clarity in Flower Drum Song. Why this movie has yet to materialize on Blu-ray is beyond me! Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of  5 – 5 being the best)
Fate is the Hunter – 3
To Whom It May Concern – 5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
Fate is the Hunter – 3
To Whom It May Concern – 4.5
EXTRAS

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