Saturday, March 26, 2016

HOW THE WEST WAS WON: Blu-ray (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1962) Warner Home Video

As big as all creation and twice as inspiring in its original curved Cinerama presentation, at 164 minutes, How The West Was Won (1962) remains a fascinating anomaly; one of only two plot-driven films expressly designed to encompass the vast expanses of Cinerama’s cumbersome – and unintentionally obvious – three camera setup. At the time, it seemed only MGM, a studio that, in its heyday went for broke on nearly every new challenge, had the audacity to take one of the most speculative and unwieldy technologies and endeavor to tell no less an ambitious saga with it than the vast American migration westward-ho; hiring four high-profile directors (at least in their day) to helm a staggering array of 24 stars. Perhaps, only in hindsight does the endeavor creak a little too ominously like the rickety horse-drawn buggies and covered wagons crossing these great plains, directed at intervals in How The West Was Won by the legendary John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall and Richard Thorpe; all solid, stalwarts, alas, unaccustomed to the demands of this new medium. How The West Was Won is really two-parts, star-studded faux history to one-part picturesque travelogue; only the latter pursuit ideally suited to Cinerama’s strengths. 
In hindsight, it is the awkwardness of the process that remains at the forefront of this monumental and often breathtaking excursion – Cinerama’s inability to satisfy the audience’s need for an occasional close-up of its glittering roster of talent, the warping of vertical objects to the extreme left and right of center, and, the incalculable vastness of these wide-open spaces, dramatically put on display ‘measure for measure’ to satisfy the human periphery of natural sight, cause for a handful of less than dramatically satisfying moments. Mercifully, James R. Webb’s screenplay – based on his own series of LIFE magazine articles – interpolates the hysterical dramatics and multiple romantic threads intertwined throughout, with more than a fair share of exhilarating action sequences, for which Cinerama is chiefly adept; a superbly staged battle between George Peppard’s Zeb Rawlings and a gaggle of desperadoes aboard a runaway train, and better still, an earth – and ear-shattering buffalo stampede, lensed via a series of heart-pounding long shots, all show off the Cinerama process to its best advantage while keeping the sporadically stagnant plot moving in a forward direction.   
How The West Was Won is never a bad movie. On occasion, it aspires to become rather a good one. But on the whole it remains episodic and utterly devoted to extolling the virtues of Cinerama; the stars cleverly arranged in center frame, or artificially fitted across a static tableau as animated waxworks trapped inside a copy of an original by Frederick Remington; halcyon sunsets, Gatlin guns, ten gallons, and garters all appropriately glistening in the early morning dew or lightly battered in a dusky, if respectable layer of well-traveled dust. As How The West Was Won is a byproduct of Hollywood’s then expiring studio system, its’ visions about the ‘civilizing’ of the American west are highly sanitized and remarkably pristine. The good guys all sport a sort of unfettered Roy Rogers’ cleanliness, despite enduring wild animal and Indian attacks, a harrowing trek down some truly vicious white-water rapids, an assault by some lusty river pirates, and, the staggeringly bleak nomadic journey from outpost to outpost in search of their own piece of the manifest destiny.
The first half of How The West Was Won follows the ill-witted migration of the Prescott family; God-fearing Quaker, Zebulon (Karl Malden), his pert wife, Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead) and their three children; eldest, book-read daughter, Eve (Carol Baker), feisty, Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) and their youngest, nondescript son, Sam (Kim Charney). Along the road they befriend an unusually cultured fur trapper, Linus Rawlings (Jimmy Stewart – just a wee too long in the tooth to play the amiable love interest). Fate deals a brutal hand to the Prescott clan; Zeb and Rebecca lost after the family’s raft is hellishly destroyed in some wicked white water rapids. While Eve vows to plant her roots in this cold, but fertile land where her parents’ remains have only just been buried, later establishing a semi-prosperous homestead; Lilith strikes out on an ambitious trek across the wilderness to discover and test the depth, strength and merits of her own mettle. On this journey she befriends an aged spinster, Agetha Clegg (the irrepressible, but woefully underused Thelma Ritter) and garners more than passing interests from two men; Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck), a no-account riverboat dandy and notorious gambler; the other, wagon-train master, Roger Morgan (Robert Preston), who perhaps has Lilith’s better intentions at heart. It really doesn’t matter because Peck is the bigger star herein, and since the second act of this sprawling epic is already shaping up to belong to Debbie Reynolds, Peck’s card shark – newly reformed, no less – inevitably gets the girl.
It all might have turned out rather swell, except the producers of this grandiloquent odyssey cannot resist the urge to depart from these established characters, interceding with bits of unnecessary ‘history’ that is neither true to history itself, but has the audacity to pretend in its place, merely to offer a few more familiar faces their momentary glimpse in this passing parade. In Acts II and III, How The West Was Won begins to take on the vagrant flavoring of Michael Todd’s Around The World In Eighty Days (1956), though minus Todd’s showmanship to pull it off. Hence, Raymond Massey peaks his head into the camera for the obligatory non-verbal debut of Abraham Lincoln; John Wayne too, as the marginally better served Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman; the affairs of a burgeoning union in these United States intermittently narrated by an off-camera Spencer Tracy, who sounds more as though he has only just opened to Chapter One of any number of high school history text books rewritten with the pontificating prose of a James Hilton.  For added star cache, though given precious little to do, we also discover Henry Fonda astride a steed as Jethro Stuart, a careworn negotiator between the white man and the Cheyenne natives, and, Richard Widmark, doing his best to be the baddie as the caustic railroad overseer, Mike King. While the first half of How The West Was Won plays very much like an intimate familial drama headed somewhere, the picture’s second act stumbles through a very episodic patchwork of clumsily stitched together history, picking up mere remnants of the Prescott family saga with varying degrees of success.
It is, as example, more than a little disheartening to lose two of the pictures’ biggest stars, James Stewart and Gregory Peck in this second half – and off camera, no less. We learn from Eve, now appropriately aged and withered with time, how Linus went off to partake in the Civil War and fell in battle. Life on the ole homestead has been rough and lonely ever since. But only a few scenes later, Carol Baker’s Eve is given the same short shrift when, after a period of some months her eldest son, Zeb (George Peppard) returns from war, only to learn from his younger sibling, Jerimiah (Claude Johnson) their mother has since died, presumably, of a broken heart. The narrative shifts now to Zeb and his family, and the threat of annihilation from a lusty desperado, Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach). I suspect the genuine motivation in these latter-day episodes is to illustrate how the west really wasn’t ‘won’, but rather, belabored over through a varied and devastating series of generational heartaches and unforgivable losses that can wear any man down; smoothing off the rougher edges as sure as pebbles caught in a stream. Surviving a perilous confrontation with Gant, Zeb takes his wife, Julie (Carolyn Jones) and their two young sons, Zeke (Bryan Russell) and Prescott (Stanley Livingston), to meet their dowager Aunt Lilith, who has agreed to come live with them after Cleve’s death and the auctioning off of their San Franciscan estate and holdings. It seems, in the interim, Cleve managed to make Lilith a very rich woman.
Unable to resist showing off the advantages of Cinerama one last time, How The West Was Won concludes not with the dramatic pullback, as the carriage with Zeb, his family and Aunt Lilith drives off into Monument Valley toward an uncertain future - the family bound by the imperishable generational bond of genuine love - but a series of dramatic overhead shots depicting then modern-day California; the promises made in the ‘go west, young man’ mantra presumably fulfilled in this dizzying array of omnipotent flybys over the Los Angeles freeway, sailing over rooftops in a congested San Franciscan skyline, zipping past irrigated orange groves, or effortlessly looming over the precipice of the Hoover Dam. It all makes for a lovely travelogue, set to composer, Alfred Newman’s penetrating reprise of the Main Title, now, complete with choral accompaniment, and, recorded in Cinerama’s staggeringly life-like 7-track Westrex stereo; its’ aural fidelity – at least, to my mind – never topped in the movies, even by today’s Dolby DTS.    
If anything, How The West Was Won unintentionally illustrates the reasons why Cinerama never had much of a future as a viable widescreen process for telling narrative stories; its forte – the globe-trotting travelogue – doomed to a short shelf life; ditto for the specially built, ‘state-of-the-art’ theaters to accommodate its unique presentation requirements: the louvered and curved movie screens. How The West Was Won is a lot of fun to watch, but mostly as an anomaly and homage to this bygone format, rather than a compelling, plot-driven drama/actioner. The roster of talent assembled for this spectacle is uniformly solid, expertly cast and generally giving it their all. The best moments arguably belong to Debbie Reynolds and Carol Baker; the Prescott sisters, carrying most of the weight of the plot until late in the second act when each is inexplicably tossed aside to favor young Zeb and his burgeoning familial woes. The production values afforded art directors George W. Davis, William Ferrari, and, Addison Hehr are decidedly first-rate; cast and crew crossing the wide Missouri several times - and then some - as production migrated from California, to Arizona, Kentucky, South Dakota, Oregon, Colorado and Utah; all of it lensed in Technicolor resplendence, and, with miraculous continuity by cinematographers, William H. Daniels, Milton R. Krasner, Charles Lang, and, Joseph LaShelle.
World-renown newsman/adventurer, Lowell Thomas – who had not only served as MC on the very first Cinerama feature: This is Cinerama (1952) (the headily anticipated experimental foray into this ‘new’ form of exhibition that would briefly spawn a movie-going renaissance) and also held controlling stock in the brain trust behind it, even in 1952, correctly pegged Cinerama as a ‘gimmick’; like 3D, just another ploy to counterbalance and/or stave off the insidious panic-stricken animosity inculcated inside the front offices of Hollywood’s movie-making empires by TV – that new-fangled gadget effectively cutting theater attendance by nearly half in just three short years; from 90 million paid admissions in 1949 to barely 56 million in 1952.  Placed in its proper context, Cinerama can rightly be judged as the forerunner in the widescreen war that would overtake the industry the following year with Darryl F. Zanuck’s inauguration of Cinemascope; an infinitely more manageable single-lens anamorphic process. But by 1962, Cinerama’s initial impact had inevitably cooled, enough to suggest it had no lasting future. So, why did MGM, already foundering badly by the early sixties, think Cinerama as their best salvation?
Lest we forget neither Cinerama nor Cinemascope were ‘new’ to the 1950’s. No, that honor goes to French director, Abel Gance, who beat producer, Merian C. Cooper and Fred Waller’s invention by nearly twenty years with the premiere of Napoleon (1927); a silent epic that, in its penultimate battle sequence, breathtakingly expanded the conventional 1.33:1 movie image into a three camera projection for the epically staged deluge at Waterloo. For those unwilling to concede as much, we can neither dismiss nor ignore American impresario, William Fox’s even more ambitious Grandeur widescreen process, first launched with 1930’s The Big Trail - a 70mm precursor some thirty years ahead of its time that equally failed to catch on. So Cinerama did not embark on a quantum evolutionary step into the unknown. Nor was it to attain the longevity of newer/arguably, better widescreen wonders already looming large on the horizon: Cinemascope, Todd A-O, VistaVision, Technirama, Dimension-150 and, Super Panavision-70; all better suited than Cinerama to tell a compelling drama like How The West Was Won.
Besides, the Cinerama system had serious drawbacks, not the least of which was its frequent inability to properly align all three projected panels, thereby making the seams between the center and side panels more obvious. Also, if one of the reels should suffer a break, corresponding frames needed to be cut from the other two reels to preserve synchronization. Cinerama also tested the patience of both How The West Was Won’s stars and directors; co-star, Stanley Livingston recalling “…to get anything that even resembled a close-up meant you were no more than two feet away from the camera, which is bizarre. It needed to be right in your face to get a close-up.”  In close-up another anomaly emerged; a noticeable bending-in of any horizontal information too close to the seams, resulting in some oddly twisted tree branches in more than a handful of outdoor scene, and, curtains on a window that appear to meet in the middle directly behind Debbie Reynolds as she performs one of her songs. Reynolds would later recall, “Any conversation I had with my co-stars was purely coincidental; the camera was always between you and the other person. Half the time you had to stare at this mark they placed just out of camera range and pretend it was the other person. You had to act like the camera wasn’t there, but it was sometimes the only thing you saw.” Also, zoom lenses were impossible. But perhaps the greatest limitation was something later referenced as Cinerama’s ‘sweet spot’, a sort of midrange-long shot from which all action viewed through the three bug-eyed lenses appeared as accurately represented. Deviating even slightly from this optimal setup or placing foreground action caused portions of the image to suddenly appear distorted; perhaps nowhere more egregiously on display in How The West Was Won, than during the stampede, where buffalo appear to be running into one another as they slip past the seams that link the side panels to the center image.
The impact a theatrical exhibition of Cinerama had on audiences in its heyday cannot be overstated, and, viewed in its proper mode of projection inside an equipped movie palace, I have no doubt as to why reviews of the day hailed How The West Was Won as a landmark achievement, not the least for its ability to overcome a good deal of the aforementioned shortcomings while simultaneously managing – against great technological disadvantages – to offer audiences conventional storytelling utilizing a highly unconventional format. Alas, there is no way to replicate this Cinerama experience in all its 360 degree enveloping splendor in the privacy of one’s living room. Flattening the image into three perfectly aligned panels creates a very thin ‘letterboxed’ image best viewed on TV screens 85 inches or greater. But it also severely distorts the geometry of the original presentation; actors walking from left to right, now appearing to unnecessarily approach the camera at a discombobulating or even equilibrium-altering angle, only to move away at the same angle as the process is repeated on the other side of the screen.
To be fair, Cinerama did introduce various innovations to the movie-going experience that truly made it unique among its rivals; Cinerama’s louvered screen, as example, comprised of horizontal chords meticulously angled and greatly improving the overall luminosity and clarity of the image being projected onto them. So too did Cinerama give audiences their first real taste of eight-track directionalized stereophonic sound.  Walt Disney had toyed with the concept of true stereo, all the way back to 1940’s Fantasia. But it was Cinerama that fulfilled the prophecy of true stereo with an uncanny and superior richness in overall fidelity, unheard in movies before its inauguration and arguably, never again with such razor-sharp vibrancy.  Even so, How The West Was Won emerges as an even more perplexed anomaly to the footnote of Cinerama – coming, as it did, an entire decade after the initial hype of This is Cinerama had ostensibly cooled. Billed as an ‘epic western’ by MGM’s marketing department, How The West Was Won would go on to become the highest grossing movie of 1963; no small feat as it inevitably played in fewer venues equipped to handle Cinerama, and, more proof positive Cinerama’s novelty had not entirely faded away with the ticket-paying public.
For years, all home video versions of How The West Was Won were little more than a glaring reminder of Cinerama’s more prominent shortcomings: mis-registration of the three-camera negatives and obvious fading between the various film stocks, grotesquely exaggerated by the separation seams between left, middle and right panels. However, in 1997, the Library of Congress declared How The West Was Won a culturally, historically and aesthetically significant film worthy of preservation. And now, after decades of neglect, and two thoroughly lackluster incarnations on DVD, Warner Home Video seems to have concurred with this assessment, resurrecting How The West Was Won in a definitive – and very expensive reboot/nee, approximation of how the movie must have appeared to audiences in 1962. This Blu-ray release is decidedly cause for celebration on a number of levels. First, it offers two viewing options: either in a standard reassembly of the three panels, projected flat across the screen, with all the dirt, debris, scratches, and yes – even the seams between each panel – digitally removed, thus creating a superior visual presentation for the very first time – or, in the rechristened ‘Smilebox’ format; the image artificially bent from left to right to recreate the curvature of the Cinerama screen within the conventional framing of a flat TV screen. I confess, seated more closely to my TV screen and in a completely darkened room, the ‘Smilebox’ rendering of How The West Was Won gave me a fairly accurate approximation of the Cinerama experience. Now, having seen How The West Was Won back in the mid-1990’s in a real Cinerama venue, I should point out, for anyone else who has had this good fortune, prepare to be both disappointed, and yet very pleasantly surprised by how good this faux recreation looks.  
The pluses on this Blu-ray are worth noting: exceptional color reproduction and a level of clarity unseen since How The West Was Won had its world premiere. The image is robust, with eye-popping hues and copious amounts of fine detail burgeoning from all corners of the newly expanded and restore frame. Warner Home Video has done a thoroughly outstanding job on resurrecting the Cinerama experience for home theater viewing. Again, it is still an approximation with no real counterpart to an actual Cinerama screening; but with the added bonuses of having the wobble and jitter of real Cinerama completely removed and the seams between the center and side panels ostensibly expunged.  Contrast is superb. Film grain is accurately represented. The image is crisp without appearing to have sustained any undue artificial sharpening.  Better still; the newly remastered 5.1 DTS audio recreates much of the exhilaration of the original 7-track stereo. If you have never experienced Cinerama audio before, this disc will thoroughly satisfy and surprise you. Extras include a superb audio commentary stitched together from new and vintage interviews with surviving cast and crew. We also get the comprehensive documentary, Cinerama Adventure; a fond look at those early heady days of this widescreen wonderment, and easily worth the price of admission by itself. A point to consider: the commentary is only available on the standard version. The ‘Smilebox’ version is barebones – only chapter stops. Bottom line: How The West Was Won may not be superior in its storytelling, but in its present-day reincarnation on home video, it remains an elegant, overblown and infectiously alluring ‘gimmick’ not to be missed. This one belongs on everyone’s top shelf!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

STAR! (2oth Century-Fox 1968) Fox Home Video

Sixteen years after the death of Broadway's beloved Gertrude Lawrence, 2oth Century-Fox afforded the ‘late great’ a lavish biopic from the award-winning team responsible for catapulting Julie Andrews to super-stardom in The Sound of Music (1965). Billed as “the love affair of the century - between a woman, and the world”, Robert Wise’s Star! (1968) is flashy, often engrossing, and impeccably crafted. It was never meant to be a literal chronology of the life and times of Gertrude Lawrence. That it came at the end of the sixties verve for big and oft’ bloated road shows, and failed to catch even the tail fires of this popular zeitgeist, is a miscalculation in timing only, and yet one from which the film’s reputation continues to suffer. Star! was a colossal flop for Fox at a particular epoch when the studio could scarcely afford another. In a good many books written about the history of the Hollywood musical, Star! is often cruelly cited as one of the reasons why musicals in general fell out of favor with audiences; the other two being Doctor Doolittle and Hello Dolly! (1969). Ironically, all three came from Fox, still riding high on the ether of The Sound of Music.  And yet, none of the aforementioned is quite the disaster – artistically speaking. In fact, Dolly!, Doolittle and Star! are built like tanks; given over to the sort of unadulterated showmanship and razzamatazz all truly great musicals possess in spades, and, with individual merits long since searing their stature in the public’s estimation as ‘classics’ from a bygone vintage we are unlikely to experience again.
After it became quite clear box office was not forthcoming on Star!, a panicked brain trust at Fox withdrew it from circulation, unceremoniously hacking into Wise’s careful construction without his consent or input, leaving nearly 26 minutes on the cutting room floor, and, reissuing the picture under a different title; ‘Those Were The Happy Days’. Clearly, they were not.  Retrospectively speaking, one can see the forest for the trees. Star! is a great musical – undoubtedly ill-timed, but supremely satisfying as a free-flowing travelogue through the finer points that effectively make up Gertrude Lawrence’s saucy backstage badinage. Until Star!, the Teflon-coated persona of Gertie Lawrence had been preserved in two positively gushing and highly sanitized accolades; the first, penned by Lawrence herself in 1945; the other, a postmortem love-in written by her second husband, Max Lamb. In reading either, I suspect Robert Wise was dumbstruck – and more than a little dismayed by the one-dimensional illusion of Lawrence; a reminder, perhaps of Winston Churchill’s rather glib retort to a reporter who once asked if the pugnacious diplomat worried how he would be judged by history in years yet to follow. Churchill’s reply, “Fairly, for I intend to write it.”
Gertrude Lawrence was and remains a formidable talent of the stage; 1941’s Lady in the Dark still regarded by many as the epitome of chic sophistication for which Lawrence was hailed as “a goddess” in the New York Times. But she was also a creation of flesh and blood; as such, mortally flawed by certain inalienable human foibles that, far from debasing her professional reputation, only add compelling back story to the intangible appeal of her magical stage presence. “I talked with a lot of people who knew her,” producer, Saul Chaplin reflected, “…and invariably they all had the same thing to say about her. She couldn’t act, sing or dance…but she was marvelous!”  Wise, Chaplin and their troop of researchers have certainly done their homework on Gertie Lawrence. Star! is neither a hatchet job on the woman nor a gallivanting TripTik through her musical career, though occasionally it veers toward this later pursuit. There are no less than 18 musical numbers interpolated throughout the road show of Star! Julie Andrews warbles all but two of these songs, ably abetted by her co-star, the seemingly effortless and undeniably brilliant, Daniel Massey – playing his godfather, Noel Coward. Coward, then still very much alive, and with a reputation equally as Teflon-coated as Lawrence’s, thought Star! a splendid way to celebrate Lawrence – as well as resurrect many of the shows he had co-written and costarred in with the grand dame. Without hesitation, Coward granted producers the rights to his likeness and back catalog of shows. One down. One to go. Saul Chaplin had also hoped to convince Beatrice Lillie, arguably Lawrence’s best friend (with whom she is rumored to have had a lesbian relationship) to partake of this exercise. Alas, Lillie became exacting and impractical in her demands – idiotically desiring to play herself in the movie. Unable to convince her otherwise, Chaplin’s decision was instead to write her out of the show entirely. Star! gets a lot of criticism for amending Gertie’s personal history. Indeed, Star! all but avoids the last act of her life. And yet, one can sincerely forgive screenwriter, William Fairchild these artistic licenses; especially since, in a good many cases, only ‘names’ have been changed (to protect the…um… ‘innocent’); Fairchild also telescoping Gertie’s many love affairs into an amalgamation with fictional counterparts to satisfy the constraints of time. After all, real life is often messy. Movies strive for a tidier account of ‘the truth’. In hindsight, Fairchild’s achievement is both large-scale and all-encompassing. He gets the big picture right, even if the details are occasionally muddled beyond recognition.  
The painstaking research performed by Robert Wise and his associates in the preparation of Star! goes above and beyond this bottom line; culled from information gleaned in numerous interviews with people who knew Gertie Lawrence through her less than flattering moments. From these eyewitness accounts it became rather apparent there were at least two sides to Lawrence for which literature – either out of genuine reverence or an even greater anxiety to avoid a defamation of character lawsuit - had quietly swept under the rug. Initially, Wise and producer, Saul Chaplin planned to shoot an animated sequence to express the dualities of Gertie’s life and times, counterbalanced by a running commentary provided by Julie Andrews. Thankfully, this approach was abandoned early on; Fairchild substituting a black-and-white newsreel prologue to serve as a bridge between ‘history’, ‘truth’ and fiction, but also to span the passage of years. For concision, as well as for legal reasons, Fairchild's screenplay rechristened, combined and/or excluded some of the real people who had constituted Lawrence’s sphere of influences and circle of friends. To fill in for Beatrice Lillie’s glaring omission, Fairchild concocted, Billie Carleton (Lynley Laurence).  Fairchild also made Lawrence’s first husband, dance director, Francis Gordon-Howley – renamed Jack Roper (John Collin) roughly the same age as Gertie, when in reality he was a solid twenty years her senior. Lawrence’s affair with Capt. Philip Astley was reworked too; the character now renamed Sir Anthony Spencer (Michael Craig), while Gertie’s engagement to Wall Street banker, Bert Taylor was entirely overlooked. In the movie, Gertie briefly procures a burgeoning romance with the fictional Wall Street stockbroker, Ben Mitchell (Anthony Eisley) before moving on to playhouse producer, Richard Aldrich (Richard Crenna).
Even before a single frame had been exposed, Star! was shaping up to be an extravaganza; what with Boris Leven’s meticulous recreations of London’s West End and Donald Brooks’ ravishing array of vintage costumes; 3,040 in all, some 125 changes for Andrews alone. As these exquisite outfits were subsidized by the Western Costume Co. they officially became their property after production wrapped; loaned out for many years on a rental basis before finally being auctioned off in the late 1970s. To choreograph, Wise and Chaplin turned to veteran, Michael Kidd who elected to ‘push’ Julie Andrews beyond her comfort zone; their collaborative efforts producing two irrefutable stand outs: ‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ and the mammoth finale, built around ‘The Saga of Jenny’; that oft resurrected and much admired Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin song from Lady in the Dark. ‘Burlington Bertie’ marks Gertie’s breakout in a show for famed impresario, André Charlot (Alan Oppenheimer); her nearly three month pregnancy camouflaged in hobo’s drag. Andrews is caustically magnificent as the snobbish vagrant who, with noblesse oblige, refuses to ‘have a banana with Lady Diana’ and has the effrontery to ‘swank it’ using Rothchild’s ‘mail for a blanket’; all the while thinking the hoi poloi damn fools. It is an enchanting bit of music hall nostalgia, excised with Andrews’ inimitable aplomb and transparent affinity for those early and, even by 1968, all but forgotten golden years.
By contrast, ‘The Saga of Jenny’ is an epically mounted super-number, perhaps owing a tad too much to vintage sixties glitz than the glam-bam decadence of the original Lawrence show; Andrews descending from on high on a whirling swing in her navy blue and silver sequined pants suit, thereafter cavorting with an assortment of colorfully attired circus performers; acrobats, jugglers, midgets and clowns. Bounced from buttocks to pelvis, Andrews saucy delivery of the lyrics evokes a deliciously stylized cynicism as she points to the foibles of this fictional bon vivant who, among her other social misfires, lit the candles, but tossed the taper away, only to become an orphan on Christmas Day; got herself all dolled up in satin and furs to land a husband that was not hers; whose searing white hot memoirs inspired wives to shoot their husbands in some thirty-three states, and finally, succumbed to too much gin and rum and destiny at the age of seventy-six.  The Saga of Jenny is a phenomenon unto itself, a musical sequence quite apart from everything else that has gone before it, chiefly due to Wise’s decision to move his camera beyond the proscenium; inviting his audience to partake of its spectacle in close-up. Virtually all of the other numbers are deliberately photographed at a distance to mark their distinction as products of the stage. It is to Wise’s credit, and moreover, a hallmark of his decades of expertise, none of these stage-bound vignettes ever wind up becoming static or dull. Some, like ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ are expertly used as bridges to intercut and/or skip over whole passages of time, while others, ‘Physician’ and ‘Dear Little Boy’ foreshadow more of the plot, as yet to unfold. 
Absurdly budgeted at six million, Star! likely seemed to guarantee its own box office. How could it miss? In retrospect, far too easily. For starters, the movie musical had already passed its prime by 1968; thanks, in part to a slew of ill-conceived and heavy-handed produced clunkers that had soured the public on the genre. But audiences were also increasingly looking for realism in their movies. What had sold tickets a scant four years earlier, now drew jeers if, in fact, the audience was listening at all. Worse, critics had become increasingly jaded by this era of over-budgeted/over-produced fluff; the treacle, too sticky; the staging, fairly weighty and familiar, failing to impress. Finally, unlike some of the more profitable efforts put forth throughout the decade (West Side Story, 1960; The Music Man, 1962, and, My Fair Lady, 1964, among them), Star! was not a Broadway-to-Hollywood hybrid. As such, it had no pre-sold title that could be trumpeted by the marketing department; no precedence either, except among the aging demographic still able to recall Gertie Lawrence in her prime. The trick in the exercise therefore fell to Julie Andrews’ ability to do ‘this star’ justice. Gertrude Lawrence had been a bona fide – if caustic – legend in her own time. Perhaps owing to that daunting iconography, Andrews had, in fact, turned down previous offers to portray Lawrence in the movies. But now, she too was ‘a star’ - her pert and plucky, ‘practically perfect’ and squeaky clean nun/nanny in both The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins (1964) diametrically at odds with Lawrence’s razor-backed ‘uber-wit’ and ultra-chic sophistication.
Yet, in Robert Wise, Andrews felt secure. Moreover, a mutual admiration had been built up between Wise, Chaplin and Andrews during their collaboration on The Sound of Music, ensuring integrity, class and tact as the order of the day on Star!; an ‘A-list’ production to adorn and compliment two great ladies. Besides, Andrews still owed Fox a movie. While Richard Zanuck remained mildly concerned about the declining popularity of big-budgeted Hollywood musicals, he nevertheless felt certain that with Andrews at its helm Star! could be an even greater triumph for the studio. Tragically, it proved the rule rather than the exception, a titanic backfire eviscerated by the critics and all but ignored by audiences. Removed from all its hype and properly placed, Star! today clearly has more virtues than vices to recommend it.  At 120 minutes Star! is a forgivable hodgepodge. At 150 min. it begins to acquire a moody magnificence with glimmered signs of becoming something far greater than the sum of its parts, particularly since Wise never allows the musical program to become arbitrarily episodic. However, reinstated at 170 min. Star! is unequivocally a masterpiece – perhaps, not on the same level as Wise’s The Sound of Music, but equally teeming with intrigued creativity and copious amounts of richly satisfying music.
Julie Andrews and Daniel Massey are sublime casting, the Ying and Yang of the piece as Gertie and Noel respectively. Andrews wisely interprets Gertrude Lawrence on her own terms rather than attempting a caricature of the star’s well-documented behaviors and mannerisms. And Andrews is undeniably in very fine voice – much finer, in fact, than Lawrence ever was in life.  Massey, on the other hand, is an exquisite Noël Coward; uncannily comfortable in the effete playwright's skin, perhaps in no small way because he was meticulously coached in his performance by his godfather - Noël Coward. To listen to Massey warble the incandescent and slightly sordid, ‘Forbidden Fruit’ (a ditty about man’s perilous desire to possess that which, quite frankly, he should not, whether it be peaches atop the highest bow or the adoration of an already married Mrs. Brown) is to give the erudite Coward his considerable due. And the chemistry between Massey and Andrews during the dramatic and comedy bits feathered into William Fairchild’s screenplay, are a veritable feast, occasionally playing fast and loose with the specifics of Gertie’s life and lovers. While no one could – or rather, should – confuse Fairchild’s reflections as the definitive ‘last’ word on Gertrude Lawrence, his narrative retains just enough verisimilitude to be believed as a big and bouncy biopic. With all of its excised footage reinstated Star! eloquently moves through its period recreations, intelligently scripted and impeccably acted.
It is impossible not to find at least something to amuse, and quite often more than a mere something to stand up and cheer about. Star! sings its way into our hearts as only Julie Andrews in her prime could. Perhaps, one of the reasons it so completely failed to be discovered in 1968 has to do with Wise’s deliberate studio-bound approach to the material. By 1968, most movie genres, including musicals, had left the confines of the back lot; the ‘opening up’ of traditional stage works lending an air of quaintness and, perhaps, formaldehyde to musicals made only a decade earlier. In this regard, Star! very much plays like a movie musical conceived for the 1940's; its sets obvious; its numbers staged almost exclusively as works taking place on the stage – framed by walls, a painted backdrop and a curtain, thus adhering to its nostalgic music hall revue tableau.  Because of this, the truth of the piece and invariably its own time period are exquisitely preserved. Still, Star! is undeniably a throwback, and regrettably not what audiences wanted to see in 1968. A shame too, because the story as crafted by Fairchild is a very rich tapestry, imbued with an almost lyrical fondness, and, more than able to poke fun at the foibles of then contemporary society, both upper-class snobbery and lowborn slum prudery, equally with a modicum of tongue-in-cheek waggishness and spellbinding professionalism.
Wise’s film begins in earnest with a faux ‘main title’ sequence shot in B&W, framed in the traditional Academy aspect ratio of 1:33:1. Wise had to get permission from 2oth Century-Fox to use their pre-Cinemascope logo, the ‘credits’ paying homage to Gertrude Lawrence with vintage photographs of the star as a baby and little girl. These snapshots segue into a montage of vintage newsreels cobbled together with new footage shot for the film but appropriately distressed to provide a seamless backdrop of Gertie's childhood and early teenage years. When the newsreel introduces Gertie’s father, Arthur (Bruce Forsyth) we hear a note of protest off camera and are startled by the suddenly glamorous appearance of Gertrude Lawrence (Julie Andrews) rising from her chair in sumptuous color by DeLuxe, the screen expanded to its large gauge aspect ratio. We are in a projection room; Gertie, with movie shorts producer, Jerry Paul (Damian London), about to set the record straight. It wasn’t all hearts and flowers, Gertie explains; her dad, a bumbling old rapscallion and something of a lady’s man who left her mum when Gertie was still a child, and whose portly paramour, Rose (Beryl Reid) is costarring in their latest of many forgettable music halls engagements in London.
Gertie, now a teen, salvages their busker routine with a brash intervention, winning the audience’s respect after Arthur is pelted with tomatoes. Backstage, Arthur is incensed – perhaps, more wounded pride than anything else – even as he announces he and Rose are leaving for a tour of South Africa in the morning. Once again, Gertrude is left to fend for herself. Landing a minor part in an ensemble all-girl's act, Gertie attempts to distinguish herself – at first quite by accident, but later by grandstanding – her decision to upstage the act, infuriating the others. Gertie's next stab at stardom is as flawed. She falls through a stage trap door imbedding a mattress coil in her backside while crashing the auditions for London impresario, Andre Charlot. Her accidental 'entrance' reunites Gertie with childhood pal, Noel Coward and also convinces Charlot to cast her in the chorus.
Gertie, however, fancies herself a star. So, during a performance by matinee idol, Jack Buchanan (Garrett Lewis) she upstages the other chorines - a move that utterly infuriates Charlot, who reiterates he “does not employ unprofessional amateurs!”  Gertie, who never holds anything back, is about to reply in kind, but is encouraged by stage manager, Jack Roper to hold her tongue. Over drinks at a local pub, Roper promises Gertie her moment in the spotlight when all he really wants is a way into her bed. Flattery can get him almost anywhere – and in short order. The two are married. But Roper's plan to hasten Gertie's retirement by getting her pregnant creates a rift in their marriage; along with Roper’s alcoholic binges and the birth of their daughter, Pamela (Jenny Agutter). So, Gertie and Jack divorce. Meanwhile, Noel initiates an awkward ‘cute meet’ between Gertie and dashing guardsman, Sir Anthony Spencer (Michael Craig). While Tony is quite smitten with Gertie from the beginning, it takes some time for her to warm to him. But Spencer is the patient sort, and arguably the right man for our temperamental star. The two eventually become lovers.  Regrettably, Tony’s debut of Gertie in polite society is an ill fit.  While she aspires to these finer fashions and ideals, Gertie is undeniably a very rough diamond. After learning she has skipped out on a performance for a date with Tony, Charlot sacks Gertie from his new musical revue. To make ends meet during this fallow period, Gertie becomes a fashion model, painfully bored by the work. Once again, Noel - whose star has been steadily on the ascendance - comes to Gertie's rescue, coaxing Charlot to take her back for his new show.
At this juncture, the movie’s narrative becomes slightly jumbled; skipping through a series of vignettes covering six years in a mere four and a half minutes. Charlot takes his revue to America where it is a big hit and Gertie an even bigger one. In New York, she meets Wall Street banker, Ben Mitchell (Anthony Eisley) and then Charles Fraser (Robert Reed), a somewhat pretentious madcap. Both men relentlessly pursue her. Temporarily smitten, Gertie has a tryst with each. But these passing fancies grow dim, especially after Tony arrives at Gertie’s ultra-chic New York penthouse on the eve of a lavish Roman toga party at which Gertie elects to stand out from the crowd by going as Madame de Pompadour instead. Despite the fact she obviously prefers Tony to either of the new men in her life Gertie sends all of them away in the end. Forlorn after everyone except Noel has gone home, Gertie is encouraged to send for Tony. He will come back if only she asks him. But it’s no use. Gertie is already married…as Noel pointed out earlier – to her career. The reason for Gertie’s bittersweet rejection of Tony is never entirely explained. Herein, Wise inserts an intermission instead, after which we move into the next phase of Gertie’s life; her very strained mother/daughter relationship with Pamela - now a teenager. Gertie has elected to take Pamela on her summer holidays off the coast of France, along with her social secretary, Dorothy (Mathilda Calnan). Although a mutual longing within persists for these two to become closer, neither Gertie nor Pamela is capable of making the necessary move to reach out. Pamela instead goes home to England to finish her schooling. Sensing how unfulfilled and lonely Gertie is once again, Noel encourages her return to the stage in Charlot's new revue. Nothing has changed. Gertie is an even bigger hit. However, almost immediately, she is charged with tax evasion - a gross mismanagement of her assets by the ill-equipped Dorothy, leaving Gertie horrendously in debt. To repay what she owes, Gertie plunges headstrong into a breakneck workload; performing on the stage, appearing in nightclubs, newsreels, and, dance halls until she suffers a complete physical breakdown.
Hospitalized and disheartened, Gertie takes Noel's suggestion to go to America for an extended respite. While performing in Noel’s Private Lives, Gertie meets producer, Richard Aldrich (Richard Crenna) who operates a small playhouse on Long Island. The romance between them is tempestuous at best; fueled by a mutual disdain that ironically grows into hot-blooded lust. Aldrich produces 'Lady In The Dark' - Gertie's most enduring stage success up to this point in her career. He also manages to win Gertie’s heart at long last. Curiously, Star! never ventures beyond this moment – omitting what is arguably Lawrence’s most celebrated stagecraft - as Anna Leonowens in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. Instead, after performing The Saga of Jenny from Lady in the Dark, we end with another flashback – or rather, flash-forward, to the projection room where our story began. Gertie reminisces “Well, that’s the way it was,” the inference, of course, being her relationship with Aldrich has not survived. Presumably, to satisfy the conventions of the traditional ‘all’s well that ends well’ in Hollywood musicals, Wise does not end his movie here. Instead, we regress to the day of Gertie’s wedding to Aldrich; the couple inundated by well-wishers pitching rice. Aldrich and Gertie hurry into the backseat of a waiting chauffeur-driven car. She utters the identical – and prophetic - words once said to Jack Roper, “I shouldn’t have married you.” However, unlike Roper – who fluffed off this confession with laughter, Aldrich casually tells Gertie if she would prefer they can drive straight to the courthouse and have their marriage annulled. This, of course, incurs Gertie’s ire. She flies into one of her trademark tirades, leaving Aldrich mildly amused – the couple’s car driving off into the countryside for a ‘life together’ that we already know is doomed to fail.
In this penultimate moment of farewell Star! defines itself as a very elaborate undertaking; its imperfect subject matter brilliantly reconstituted as the big and glossy Hollywood musical. Fairchild’s exposition and Wise’s direction have conspired on a first-rate entertainment.  For the most part, Star! is a genuine treat, sustained by its delicate balance of intelligence, humor and sentiment; slickly packaged and handsomely mounted. Julie Andrews achieves the stature of another great lady without devolving into lampoon or rank mimicry.  Her Gertie Lawrence is nothing short of a revelation; the tartness of this diva somehow reconciled with Andrews more plucky onscreen personality.  Star! plays far better minus audiences expectations for Robert Wise to deliver another ‘Sound of Music’. It really is an ‘apples to pomegranates’ comparison; Star! a far more introspective and subtler critique of the garrulous Gertie. Right at the start, Andrews’ mordant maven orders producer, Jerry Paul not to analyze her too closely; perhaps, a bit of foreshadowing on Wise’s part as to where the rest of the film is headed. For Star! is as much a critique of the intangible variables that made Gertrude Lawrence uniquely a star as it typifies a certain derivative of highly stylized movie-making in general – and, of course, making movies musicals in particular.   
Star! plays like a beloved snapshot of this bygone era; perhaps the only ‘living’ record to remind us of its’ musical hall vintage. Star! also comes with an interesting footnote. In 1971, a fire inside the Fox’s film vaults was thought to have destroyed the only surviving elements of the complete roadshow.  For decades, Star! was thought to be a lost film; referenced only as a flop. Time, however, does very strange things to art – both real and ‘reel’ – and in 1994, the full 175 minute cut miraculously resurfaced in Britain – the elements virtually preserved by having lain dormant in storage all these years. After considerable coaxing from Saul Chaplin and Robert Wise, Fox agreed to a limited theatrical reissue of Star! in North America where it suddenly garnered notoriety and much praise from the critics – some of who had poo-pooed it as a disastrous misfire back in 1968. Released to home video on LaserDisc later that same year, the roadshow edition of Star! proved to be a very popular seller, one resurrected on DVD in 1999. Since then, it is a genuine pity Star! has not found its way to Blu-ray.
Star! originally contained an overture, intermission/entr'acte and exit music. Regrettably, only the overture survives on Fox’s DVD. The LaserDisc of Star! also properly framed the Panavision image in its original 2:20 aspect ratio. The DVD exhibits a slightly cropped image; albeit one superior in its rendering of colors, with far better contrast levels. One other bit of controversy dogs the DVD. The newsreel footage interpolated throughout the movie was originally photographed in B&W and framed in 1.33.1. While the DVD retains the proper aspect ratio for these segments, it has inexplicably tinted these monochromatic inserts to sepia – an oversight hopefully corrected if Fox ever gets around to remastering Star! on Blu-ray. I should point out that overall, these are very minor complaints. In fact, on the whole, I am quite impressed with how well this standard def release holds up when up-converted. Colors on the DVD are impressively vibrant, allowing Ernest Laszlo's cinematography to shine. Regrettably, age-related artifacts are present and, at times the image seems to suffer from slightly boosted contrast with intermittent edge enhancement. Star!'s original six track stereo has also been distilled into a remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital. The main benefit is, of course, we get to hear Julie Andrews' sing most of her songs in stereo for the first time since the movie's debut. But Star! also deliberately incorporates several mono recordings to appropriately date the supposed vintage flashbacks. These have been faithfully reproduced in mono.  Back in 2000, Fox licensed the complete score to Star! on a 2-disc CD set – all of the tracks remastered in stereo, though regrettably, due to a rights issue, some only existing in the truncated ‘album cut’. That CD is regrettably out of print today. The hope is that if Star! does come to Blu-ray, its soundtrack will be remastered to include as an isolated stereo score for everyone’s listening enjoyment.
Star! on DVD is a flipper disc. Side A contains the 175 minute cut of the film with a very insightful audio commentary from Robert Wise. On Side B, we get an original 1968 featurette and a vintage short from 1994 entitled ‘Silver Star’ shot for the reissue reunion party and featuring principles, Robert Wise, Saul Chaplin, Julie Andrews and Richard Crenna. There is also a ‘stills’ galleries, but this is regrettably a hodgepodge of overlapping images – some so unflattering, Julie Andrews ought to have insisted the originals be burned. There are also extensive liner notes on the making of the film to toggle through with your remote control. Personally, I would have preferred a comprehensive documentary on the making of this great movie instead – but there it is. Bottom line: Star! is a great musical – period! It may not be what audiences expected to see in 1968, but today it can most assuredly take its rightful place as a bona fide classic.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Monday, March 21, 2016

ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS: Blu-ray (Columbia 1939) Criterion Collection

The third highest grossing film of 1939 was Only Angels Have Wings (1939); director, Howard Hawks aviation adventure yarn about a motley crew of rough and ready fly boys, living and dying for their ‘by the seat of their pants’ creed in the all but forgotten and fictional tropical backwater of Barranca. The picture is exceptional; chiefly for its searing tension that runs like the attenuated thread of fate throughout Jules Furthman’s screenplay; also, for Cary Grant’s uncharacteristically dark and brooding performance as the emotionally detached bastard/stud, and, for an early appearance by Rita Hayworth, who positively sizzles as the sinfully sexy girl who knew him when – and would like to get to know him again, despite having married in the interim. Last, but certainly not least, we tip our hats to the proverbial ‘nice girl’ (every movie should have one), herein played with coquettish sincerity by the thirties favorite innocent – Jean Arthur. Only Angels Have Wings reeks of Howard Hawk’s trademarked rough-n-ready panache; a characteristic he shares with the likes of directors, William Wellman and Victor Fleming. Hawks is never afraid to let the pain show as he puts this heroic sect through the unapologetic, frank – if highly romanticized – exhibitions of life and death; the Victor Frankenstein of this high-flying entourage. Hawks also keeps a lot inside, bottled up in male-bonding machismo.  Not bad for a movie whose competition of the day was David O. Selznick’s sprawling southern saga, Gone With the Wind and Victor Fleming’s mercurial fantasy for all ages, The Wizard of Oz; iconic monuments from this golden epoch that out-performed ‘Angels’ at the box office: even more remarkable when considering 1939’s other contenders - Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Of Mice and Men, Gunga Din, The Women, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Rains Came (to name but a handful of the praiseworthy) came after it. While box office alone should never be considered the barometer of greatness (revenue generated is often based on nothing better than the fickle ‘star gazing’ of sycophants), in the case of Only Angels Have Wings, it is, at least, a very impressive factor to what is essentially a very good show.
Decidedly that, in hindsight, Only Angels Have Wings is an extraordinary achievement. An intensely gritty, gutsy, brutally dark (figuratively and literally speaking) passionate and rain-soaked melodrama, it manages to rivet the audience’s attention from the start and almost exclusively on its star performances given by a celebrated triage of performers: Cary Grant, never better or more cynical (outside of a Hitchcock movie) as Geoff Carter, the owner/operator of a small mail delivery airline, making daily trips through a narrow and weather-plagued slit in the Andes Mountains; Jean Arthur, taming her usual giddy, cockeyed sarcasm as the bittersweet Bonnie Lee, and, Thomas Mitchell who, astonishingly, appeared in no less than five major classics produced in this single year; the aforementioned GWTW and Mr. Smith, John Ford’s trend-setting western, Stagecoach, and, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Now that is some pedigree! Mitchell’s chameleon skin is further tested in Only Angels Have Wings, as Kid Dabb, the steely-eyed aging flyer with an ax to grind, grounded by Geoff after it is discovered the Kid’s eyesight is failing.
Howard Hawks, who had been utterly impressed by the stoic aviation personnel he encountered while in Mexico scouting locations for Viva Villa! (1934) began the odyssey of bringing Only Angels Have Wings to the screen by hiring Anne Wigton to write a screenplay. Alas, Hawks disliked Wigton’s treatment, entitled ‘Plane No. 4’, so much, he eventually re-wrote the entire scenario himself, basing the new concept on his own 1938 published short story, ‘Plane from Barranca’. Even so, Hawks was discontented with the results, chronically reworking his scenarios and dialogue even as his shooting schedule progressed, with collaborator, Jules Furthman close at hand, and some minor assists by Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin. Hawks’ spur of the moment tinkering may have created an atmosphere of immediacy on the set, but it damn well frustrated Jean Arthur, already well known for being a temperamental star.  On the set, Arthur and Hawks frequently quarreled. But there was never any lingering animosity, and, in hindsight, their heated exchanges seem only to have enriched Arthur’s performance.
Only Angels Have Wings is immeasurably blessed by its incredible assortment of ‘bit players’, each offered an indelible moment or two: the sadly forgotten silent matinee idol, Richard Barthelmess playing Bat McPherson (superb, as an emotionally tortured flyer who previously bailed on a plane that claimed the life of the Kid’s younger brother and has since been branded a bad lot and high risk), Rita Hayworth, pre-super-stardom and vetted as Geoff’s empathetic ex-flame, Judy - the present Mrs. McPherson: Sig Ruman – joyous as the easily flustered saloon keeper, Dutchy, Geoff’s business partner and owner of Barranca’s most colorful nightspot (where most of the film’s action takes place): Victor Kilian, as ‘Sparks’, the ham radio operator: John Carroll, a suave fly boy, Gent Shelton, and, Noah Beery Jr., as the ill-fated novice, Joe Souther. Only Angels Have Wings would not be half as memorable without these great faces.
Hawks handpicked his roster of talent, starting with Cary Grant, with whom he had worked the year before on Bringing Up Baby (1938); rightly considered a classic today, but then a major flop for RKO. Even then, Grant was one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic stars; a free agent at a time when few - if any - existed, who could effortlessly yield as the romantic lead or comedic fop as propriety demanded. But in Only Angels Have Wings, Grant reveals a much more brooding – even unflattering – side to his Teflon-coated persona, the corrosively abrupt loner. Geoff Carter is hardly a lady’s man. In fact, he really is something of a cad; rumored to use women like Kleenex. He’s hard too, emotionally barren and morally ambiguous. Hence, when the innocent, Joe Souther wins a playful coin toss to court new arrival/specialty act, Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur), Geoff’s first inclination is to wreck their evening together by sending Joe back in the air, then teasing Bonnie with the prospect of spending her time with him instead before effectively thwarting this too with a deliberate tease. When Joe is unable to land his plane successfully through a dense fog and is killed as a result, Geoff casually tosses off his death by choosing to eat the steak Dutchy had prepared for Joe’s return; the one he ought to have shared with Bonnie. Bonnie’s brittle sadness over Joe’s loss leads to an even more callous moment: Geoff’s rather cruel and decidedly unsympathetic admonishment of her tears.
Geoff is the most infuriatingly unromantic of romantics; the love affair eventually blossoming between Bonnie and Geoff as unlikely as it remains wholly – and perplexedly – convincing. Only Cary Grant could play such a brute with such enigmatic and overriding charm. Given Geoff’s stern and dictatorial command of the air service and its workforce, his steamrolling over anyone who gets in the way of his edicts, and, his inability to connect with anybody – even the Kid – on an emotional level, what is there to attract Bonnie to Geoff? Well, the obvious answer is that it’s Cary Grant with whom Bonnie Lee (and the audience) has become enamored. Grant’s persona – or rather that which he meticulously crafted for himself out of the scrawny and insecure, acrobatic Britton known as Archibald Leach – is what is on display in this film; a presence so magnetic not even the imperious nature of the film’s alter ego can stand in its’ way. Cary Grant can make any woman’s heart flutter. Nevertheless, Grant does everything he can to avoid the clichés as the atypical hunk du jour in Only Angels Have Wings, utterly beguiling as this deceptively unscrupulous man of ulterior motives.
And then, of course, there is Grant’s chemistry with Jean Arthur to reconsider. Like Grant, Arthur’s screen appeal is not so easily definable. Mostly, it emanates from an intangible slyness that unexpectedly creeps to the surface from within. Although attractive, Arthur’s looks could hardly be considered conventional beauty. And Arthur’s Bonnie Lee is hardly hot to trot for Geoff Carter – at least, not at first. Even when she succumbs to Grant’s glycerin good looks and piercing stare near the end, Arthur does so on her own terms. Bonnie elects to stay behind in Barranca even when Geoff would have preferred she sailed with the next ship for America. Arthur’s sexy innocent is not above turning up uninvited on a rain-soaked eve in Geoff’s bedroom shower, playfully refusing to leave in nothing more modest than his oversized bathrobe after Mrs. McPherson deliberately arrives to ‘thank Geoff’ for setting her straight; the implication, of course, being an old flame has come to rekindle the embers anew.
That, in the last act, Arthur is forced to submit to a few tearful episodes, pleading at the point of a pistol for her prospective lover not to fly a suicide mission during a heavy storm (in a scene so obviously plagiarized from Victor Fleming’s 1932 classic, Red Dust, Bonnie wounds Geoff in the shoulder by accident, thus ruining his chances for takeoff) is mildly lamentable. Arthur’s strengths are impressively aligned with the classic screwball heroine, herein represented as the proverbial fish out of water.  And yet, and again, not unlike Cary Grant, she delivers the good with a sense of pride and air of stubborn determinism, her Bonnie Lee both flavorful and enriching in unanticipated ways. Only Angels Have Wings slightly falters when Hawks forces this winning team into bits of camp comedy; as in the aforementioned bedroom scene where Grant mugs for the camera as he repeatedly burns his fingers on a hot coffee pot, much to the usually stoic and often brutal Geoff’s chagrin and Bonnie’s – or is it Arthur’s? – mild amusement.
Only Angels Have Wings opens with an impressive sound stage recreation of the tropical port of Barranca; steamy, sweat-soaked and fog-laden as a medium-sized freighter coasts into port. The ship is met by Joe and Gent, who are mildly amused when Rafael (Rafael Storm), the purser inadvertently reveals his badly blackened eye and bruised cheek. While excuses abound, the pair already know the cause of the wound and are immediately introduced to it in the form of forthright, Bonnie Lee; a no-nonsense looker, smartly attired in plaid as she disembarks to explore this temporary port of call. Gent and Joe casually stalk Bonnie as she absorbs the local nightlife, including a Latin Apache performed inside a muggy and smoke-filled nightclub. Becoming aware of her male pursuers, Bonnie is relieved to discover they are Americans, far from home and in the employ of Geoff Carter as hotshot pilots. Joe and Gent flip a coin to see who will squire Bonnie to dinner. Joe wins the toss but loses to Geoff, who callously assigns both men tedious duties in order to have Bonnie to himself. When she shows little interest in being traded like a bag of meal, Geoff does Bonnie one better by dumping her. She can eat dinner alone. All the better, as far as the hotel’s owner, Dutchy is concerned. He knows Geoff much too well; his modus operandi for exploiting women with never a thought for the future.
Dutchy is the worrisome type – a real mother hen without a nest egg. He does not want Joe to fly the mail out in this pea soup. Besides, a storm is coming. But Geoff will hear none of Dutchy’s womanly nattering. Joe takes off without a glitch but is unable to breach the fog. After getting a report from the mountain lookout about nastier weather ahead, Geoff orders Joe to return to the landing strip at once. Unhappy circumstance, Joe’s mind is on Bonnie instead of his flying. He clips a tree on his descend, exploding into a hellish fireball on the runway. Bonnie’s shock and sadness at his immediate death quickly turns to disdain for Geoff after he elects, along with the Kid, Gent and some of the other flyers, to throw a seemingly celebratory wake. Geoff tells Bonnie she needs to get wise to herself. Weeping a million tears will never bring Joe back. It also does nothing for the rest of the men’s morale. Bonnie takes Geoff’s advice to heart, returning to the saloon to find him badly mangling a piano rendition of ‘Some of These Days You’re Gonna Miss Me Honey’. Instructing Geoff to move over, Bonnie proves she can rock the house like a pro; her stiff upper lip and fast fingers pounding the ivories, ingratiating her to Geoff. 
Geoff and Bonnie share a drink at the bar, the implication - they’ll never see one another again. Bonnie is bound for America, the steamer leaving at midnight. Instead, on nothing more than a romantic whim Bonnie elects to remain behind in Barranca; incurring Geoff’s ire but also the Kid’s empathy. He tells her it’s no good; Geoff is not a noble guy but a loner who will not allow himself to be tied down. Bonnie rethinks her strategy and re-doubles her efforts. In the meantime, a new flyboy arrives in town; McPherson and his newlywed wife, Judy. The pair makes an impressive entrance. But soon, Geoff learns McPherson is travelling incognito to conceal his infamous reputation, rumored to have bailed on a previous mission, resulting in the death of the Kid’s younger brother. The Kid is understandably adversarial toward McPherson, informing him that if he had come to Baranca any sooner he – the Kid – would have surely shot him dead. As it stands, the Kid will thank McPherson to keep out of his way – or else.
Sometime later, Geoff learns the Kid has macular degeneration. He’s nearly blind and of no use in the air. So Geoff retires his best friend from active duty, putting a real strain on the fleet. The company is now two shy of the prerequisite to get the mail out on time and keep the business afloat. The Kid is hardly bitter, handling all repairs to the planes on the ground. Geoff takes his stress out on McPherson, ordering him on every mission where the element of danger is anted up; including a perilous assignment to deliver a crate of highly volatile nitroglycerin to an oil field on the other side of the mountains. McPherson never once shies away from Geoff’s insane itinerary. His chutzpah and professionalism gradually win McPherson the respect of his peers, including Geoff and the Kid. Thus, when Bonnie accidentally shoots Geoff in the shoulder – preventing him from flying another hazardous errand – the Kid offers to copilot the plane with McPherson. 
The two encounter some patchy fog and then a flock of albatross. The birds fly into the cockpit and engines, knocking the Kid unconscious and starting a fire that severely burns McPherson’s hands. Nevertheless, McPherson manages to land his crippled aircraft safely. He and the Kid are rescued by Geoff, but not long thereafter the Kid dies from his wounds; alas, not before he manages to sing McPherson’s praises. As a result, McPherson’s reputation is restored and he is embraced by the flyers as one of them. Meanwhile, the time is drawing nearer for Bonnie to leave Barranca aboard the next freighter. Geoff refuses to give her any good reason to stay, instead tossing her a coin from the Kid’s belongings. He tells her to flip it, calling heads prematurely. “I’m hard to get, Geoff”, Bonnie informs him, “…all you have to do is ask me.” Believing she means no more to Geoff than the coin, Bonnie is elated to discover both sides are labeled ‘heads’. Bonnie and Geoff are reconciled, the two well on their way to becoming more than casual lovers.
Only Angels Have Wings is perhaps the quintessential example of Howard Hawks’ elemental comraderies between men of action; a company of staunchly committed, stoic men, bent in their communal pursuit to perform daring dos that test their chest-thumping machismo. Hawks adored such exercises in male bonding; Hawks seemingly at home amidst guys who know the score and aren’t afraid to lay everything on the line. But the film also has Jean Arthur as the prototypical Hawksian heroine; hard-nosed and sassy on the outside, but with a softer than expected core; in short, the perfect mate for the solitary guy she has already chosen for her mate. Viewing Arthur’s effortless performance today, it is much too easy to forget how unpleasant things were between her and Hawks on the set.  Frequently, Arthur clashed with her director over the reading of even a single line. Years later, after observing Lauren Bacall uttering the famous line “I’m hard to get…” in Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944), Arthur offered Hawks an apology, at last, understanding what he had expected of her in this film.
While Arthur is certainly no Bacall, she definitely holds her own with an air of comedic class and distinction. Arthur is subtler in her sly scorn/yet simultaneous attraction to men who think they don’t need women in their lives; brassier in her wit and broader in interpreting a gal under the auto-piloted influence of love for a deliciously unlovable bastard. It all comes together so neatly in Only Angels Have Wings one can sincerely forget just how byzantine this character study is; the movie too: expertly paced and perfectly timed right down to the loaded pauses between peppered dialogue, magnificently interspersed and parceled off with harrowing action sequences. In hindsight, the special effects do not hold up nearly as well; the obvious models adding to the artifice, if not the believability of the story. It doesn’t matter, because Hawks’ is an imperious perfectionist when it comes to staging drama.
It is in the interplay between these characters that Only Angels Have Wings continues to sparkle like diamonds. There is an intuition – nee, aliveness – to the story; an arrogance too; Hawks almost as ballsy as his proto-masculine hell raiser; a mirror-image for the sort of guy’s guy Hawks believes himself to be. The screenplay is so perfectly pitched to the strengths of its cast that whoever is immediately in front of the camera becomes the star of the moment; Hawks never allowing our attention span to lapse for a second. He hits all the dramatic high points and even gets the occasional spontaneous laugh. Only Angels Have Wings hails 1939 as a year unparalleled in its movie-making prowess, still the exemplar by which the definition of Hollywood’s greatest achievements gone after it must take their cue.
Okay, Criterion’s release of Only Angels Have Wings appears to be culled from the same 4K transfer previously available from TCM as part of their short-lived and now very much defunct Blu-ray ‘exclusives’ line. TCM’s mismanagement of their ‘Vault Series’ is Criterion’s gain; also, a plus for fans who missed out on their first bite at the proverbial apple. Criterion already bests the TCM release by adding chapter stops. TCM’s bare-bones affair had none; rather, an arbitrary index accessible only by hitting the ‘advance’ button on one’s remote control, jumping ahead at ten minute intervals. Dumb! Really dumb!!! I am going to depart a moment to vocalize my own two cents about Criterion’s recent acquisition of a number of Sony/Columbia/Tri-Star releases coming soon – or rather – again in 1080p. While I cannot rightly disapprove of these re-issues, I can honestly wish Criterion had pursued ‘other’ deep catalog titles from Sony yet to see the light of day in hi-def once; Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, George Cukor’s Holiday, George Steven’s The Talk of the Town, among them; particularly since Sony has made titles like Dr. Strangelove and Easy Rider (both getting reissues via Criterion) already available. I hate double-dipping; a pet peeve of mine. But I digress.
Only Angels Have Wings looks great on Blu-ray from Criterion – no surprise given the retired TCM transfer was flawless too. The formidable efforts of Grover Crisp at Sony are responsible for yet another pristine hi-def classic come to Blu-ray. Joseph Walker’s stunning cinematography is luminously represented herein. Blacks are deep and fully saturated; whites, crisp though never blooming. The early sequences shot with heavy diffusion filters to mimic this steamy tropical backwater look stifling hot, sweaty and gorgeous. Film grain is naturally represented and fine detail is revealed with a startling amount of clarity throughout. Also, age-related artifacts are practically nonexistent for a smooth and highly pleasing transfer. For the most part, this image is crisp, solid and expertly contrasted. So was the TCM’s Blu-ray. So, while everything looks fantastic, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Criterion’s release contains a PCM mono audio. The TCM was advertised as 2.0 Dolby Digital. Honestly, I really cannot tell the difference between the two. Unlike the TCM release, Criterion’s reissue is region ‘A’ locked. Good news for North America. Not so good for everybody else.
Criterion’s big bonus? Extras!!!  For starters, we get almost 20 min. of audio from a 1972 conversation between filmmakers, Howard Hawks and Peter Bogdanovich. Critic, David Thomson waxes affectionately for 18 additional minutes. Thomson really needs to be given the opportunity to do feature-length commentaries for Criterion. He is a fascinating orator with copious knowledge to impart. These ‘puff pieces’ from Criterion are nice, but they barely scratch the surface of his vast storehouse of information. Howard Hawks and His Aviation Movies is another 20 min. puff piece, featuring film scholars, Craig Barron and Ben Burtt – actually a carryover from the TCM release. I confess, I have never listened to any of the Lux Radio Theatre adaptations that Criterion loves to include with these deep catalog releases. Finally, Criterion whips out a careworn trailer in 1080i and a great essay by critic, Michael Sragow, featured in the liner notes. Sure as hell beats the ole TCM Blu-ray that referred to ‘posters’ and ‘lobby cards’ as ‘extras’. Why not ‘full color artwork on disc’ like Disney used to do? Let’s cut to the chase. Bottom line: it’s the quality of the transfer you should care about and on this score, Criterion’s reissue of Only Angels Have Wings is a winner through and through. You are going to love this disc. It’s that simple. For those who never bothered to pick up the retired TCM release – this one comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, March 20, 2016

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (Warner Bros. 1966) Warner Home Video

Elizabeth Taylor once confided in an interview she believed the best security for a ‘healthy’ marital relationship was to occasionally engage in a knock-down drag-out fight with one’s significant other. Two marriages to Richard Burton and another, prematurely interrupted, though nevertheless, tumultuous whirlwind with the monumentally charming brute, Michael Todd, and one could almost believe Taylor knew from whence she spoke, already having discovered Valhalla thrice in her relationships. All the more reason, then to view director, Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) through its inevitable paradigm between Edward Albee’s fictional feuding couple - caustic George and shrewish Martha - and the legendary, rumored fireworks taking place behind closed doors at the Burton/Taylor maison. In hindsight, the couple who would continue setting rumor mills abuzz before, after and during the filming, have, in hindsight, transformed Albee’s electrostatic prose into a veritable mirror-image grand guignol of their own love affair. Right or wrong, with the passage of time, George and Martha have continued to mature in the public’s estimation as Liz and Dick at their absolute worst – or rather, best; the acting put forth from both ‘the star’ and ‘the thespian’ probably the greatest of all their frequent screen pairings; certainly, the one picture in which they both appear to have let their creative hair down with shocking duplicity to satisfy the public’s insatiable appetite for the wickedest of tabloid fodder and innuendos that cleverly appear to copycat them with an uncanny degree of verisimilitude.
The pall of the Burtons’ larger-than-life flagrante delicto and the aftermath it rained down on three households (Burton’s marriage to Sybil - shattered, Elizabeth’s to Eddie Fisher – ditto, and Debbie Reynolds – late, nee the first, Mrs. Fisher – but apparently glad to be rid of her philandering hubby while purging herself of all bitterness) bore an unsettling resemblance to the decidedly naughty and abusive exchanges the fictional George and Martha engage in during their cataclysmic cocktail hour as mere blood sport to survive – inviting an unsuspectingly naïve younger couple, Honey and Nick (played with a masterful, wounded innocence by Sandy Dennis and, occasional begrudging bewilderment by George Segal). Nick and Honey lack the necessary jadedness, and thus, emotional armor to guard and protect themselves from George and Martha’s ‘fun and games.’ But they are not without their own peccadilloes. Honey, the mousy and insecure lush, who cannot hold her liquor, has only begun to realize how faking a pregnancy to land the all-star hunk du jour and big man on campus has trapped them both in a prematurely doomed and loveless union. In one of the play’s less hyper unguarded moments, Nick confesses to George he never would have wed Honey otherwise, except for believing his drunken one night’s indiscretion created an unexpected responsibility that his own personal integrity could not shirk. Yet, even in doing ‘the right thing’ Nick realizes he is caught in a desperate trap, sycophantically relishing Martha’s garrulous and uninhibited flirtation, her mooning critique of his physical prowess and taunt body. This leaves both George and Honey feeling the spank and pall; forever, the outsiders unable to fulfill the truest desirers of their respective spouses.
George had aspirations – once; gradually chiseled down to bedrock by Martha’s emasculating domination of his life and career. According to Martha, George could have been Head of the History Department - if only he had the gumption, guts and brains to succeed. Alas, wedding Martha has reduced George into a mostly ineffectual boozehound and academic, merely going through the motions on an adjunct professor’s salary without any hope to insinuate himself back into her father’s good graces and take over as Dean someday. Daddy saw through George’s lack of ambition right away, much sooner than Martha, who has held this inadequacies against him ever since.  Perhaps no other movie, save Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (released the same year as Virginia Woolf), was as responsible for striking into the very heart of Hollywood’s galvanized Code of Censorship with such exacting complicity from then President, Jack Valenti. Indeed, producer, Jack L. Warner had been politely discouraged from pursuing the rights to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; categorically ignoring the play’s earth-shattering assault on the senses with enough ‘blue’ language to make a sailor blush. In a letter written to Warner in April of 1963, it was ‘suggested“…if you want to make a picture of this, you must get rid of all the profanity and sexually charged dialogue!” While few concessions were granted along the way – to blunt at least the 4-letter aspect of the loaded exchanges between George and Martha – Warner made a fortuitous decision in hiring screenwriter, Ernest Lehman to adapt Albee’s caustic barbs. He was not Warner’s first choice. In fact, John Frankenheimer had already worked out the particulars of his own shooting script – and had been hired as the picture’s director - when Richard Burton informed Warner he would not be partaking of the exercise should Frankenheimer remain on the payroll. With a list of enviable screen credits under his belt (Sabrina, Executive Suite – 1954, The King & I, Somebody Up There Likes Me – 1956, North by Northwest – 1959, West Side Story – 1961, The Sound of Music – 1965), Ernest Lehman, was already considered an eminent writer in Hollywood. He would unequivocally prove it on Virginia Woolf, tweaking the play’s loaded language without blunting the effect of Albee’s carefully contrived narrative, ever so cleverly ‘opening up’ what, on stage, had been essentially one embattled exchange given full flourish on a single set.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? became the cause célèbre to put Jack Valenti’s newly established presidency in the Motion Picture Association of America to the test. Like Warner, Valenti had seen the Broadway original as directed by Allen Schneider and co-starring Uda Hagen and Arthur Hill. He too was an ardent fan from the get-go.  But Albee’s masterwork required delicate consideration to make it into a movie that would, at once, retain the potency of the original without shocking the more puritanical sect of the movie-going public right out of their theater seats. In fact, Virginia Woolf would provide the impetus for a pet project Valenti had been toying with for some time – nothing less than a complete overhaul of the system - rewritten to accommodate the transition from stage to screen. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was the first motion picture to receive a ‘rating’ under Valenti’s system of classification; an 18A, thus barring more impressionable minds from attending its’ screenings, presumably to keep their ears – as well as everything else – virginal. Nevertheless, the play’s potency could not be ignored, winning 5 Tony Awards as well as the Drama Critic’s coveted prize. For obvious reasons, the word ‘fuck’ was replaced by Lehman – first, with ‘screw’; then, altogether expunged, meaninglessly dumbed down to ‘damn’; the same ‘damn’ that had once cost David O. Selznick a considerable fine of $5,000 to keep in at the end of Gone With The Wind some thirty odd years before.
Initially Henry Fonda was approached for the part of George, despite a leaked press junket to Variety shortly after Warner had already acquired the rights, suggesting big plans were afoot to costar Bette Davis and James Mason. Fonda’s polite refusal to partake may have had something to do with the rumored belief any actor endeavoring to draw clarity from such a polarizing work of fiction was likely to forever alter – nee, wreck – his on-screen as well as his public image. Viewed from this vantage, the juiciness in Albee’s sizzler inevitably appealed to one of Hollywood’s most notorious – if Teflon-coated - couples. Edward Albee was kept out of the loop on these decision-making processes, though he quietly approved of the aforementioned stars under consideration. Albee was less sincerely enthusiastic about the final decision to costar Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – at least, at the start. “I understand why they did it,” Albee would later admit, “They went for bankable box office.”  Albee’s discontent was chiefly centered on Elizabeth Taylor; at thirty-two, much too young to play the frumpish fifty-something Martha.  Taylor too had expressed nervous apprehensions about playing the part, considering it “a stretch”; her anxieties abated by Burton’s coaxing – “It’s a wonderful part and you must do it!”
There is a very old axiom in Hollywood to suggest that simply because a woman is beautiful it also stands to reason she can never be much of an actress. Indeed, this reputation had dogged the violet-eyed Taylor for most of her film career; considered a lightweight clothes horse, easy on the eye, though with virtually nothing for the heart, despite illustrating all evidence to the contrary in several major movies that had established her reputation as a consummate professional; including National Velvet (1944), Father of the Bride (1950), A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1954) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Alas, the lingering pall of Cleopatra (1963), the costly film to date, along with Taylor’s devil-may-care attitude towards the institution of marriage had effectively deprived her of a more lasting reputation in the movies. Albee’s admitted skepticism had more to do with Taylor’s age than her backstage shenanigans, by the playwright’s estimation, at least 20 years the fictional Martha’s junior, while Richard Burton was about five years too old to play George. Nevertheless, Albee was to be pleasantly surprised with the results put forth by this unlikely screen team; also, singing the praises of Jack Warner and Ernest Lehman’s contributions. “I think they gave a fairly accurate translation of the play,” Albee would later offer. Interestingly, Albee remained circumspect about Mike Nichols’ impact.
Exactly how Nichols came to direct Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is another matter entirely. A close personal friend of Richard Burton in 1960, Nichols had planned to fly to Rome with his then fiancée and meet up on the set of Cleopatra when an unanticipated breakup in his own pending engagement put a wrench in their rendezvous. Sending Burton a cablegram to inform him of this delay, Nichols was intrigued when Burton wired back, “Come anyway.” Nichols did, and was instrumental in helping to squire Elizabeth incognito around Rome during delays on the lengthy shoot. Afterward, Nichols became a confidante to both Taylor and Burton; so much, that the pair used their clout as a power-brokering couple to help Nichols land the gig to direct Virginia Woolf.  Mike Nichols would rely heavily on his cinematographer, Haskell Wexler to create the necessary ‘atmosphere’ for the picture; the decision to shoot in B&W not entirely embraced by Albee, who was informed by Jack Warner, “color is for glossy spectacles and musicals; black-and-white, for ‘serious’ pictures.” And yet, at its crux, Who’s Afraid for Virginia Woolf? can almost be considered as a deliriously dark and mildly disturbing farce. Indeed, George and Martha’s sad realization, that, despite their share contempt for each other they are anchored by an underlying and unerring fidelity to one another’s pain – and the infliction of it on each other – is a rather ironically sad social commentary on modern marriage.  
Ernest Lehman’s screenplay retains Albee’s three act framework in exposing this hellacious breakdown of communication, rife with venomous resentment, nevertheless indulged by an escalating turpitude of verbally abusive, jealous insults and mean-spirited head games. Despite the psychotic nature of their relationship, George and Martha continue to ‘need’ each other on a more profound – and profoundly disturbing - level. Albee had, in fact, based these characters on his good friends, Wagner College literature professor, Willard Maas and his experimental filmmaker/wife, Marie Menken; legendary for the infamy of bringing unsuspecting guests into their parlor game-styled tempestuousness. Setting aside George and Martha’s proclivity for strong drink, the screenplay holds tight to Albee’s ‘theater of the absurd’ inculcated with Freudian references and fitful bouts of existentialism. Entertaining George and Martha’s passive-aggressive behaviors, Lehman telescopes themes more lengthily expressed in Albee’s play, presented within the time constraints of a manageable 2 hrs., 11 mins. as mercurial, deepening, yet foundationless; the struggle of wills between two couples, or four individuals, swirling in a toxic bath of near pathological and very self-destructive behaviors, but caught in a maelstrom of their own design. Honey and Nick lack longevity in their relationship to be both as openly cruel or as needy as George and Martha, though, in essence, they are the prototypes, foreshadowing precisely where their relationship is likely headed; George and Martha’s open vetting a real ‘eye-opener’ for Honey and Nick.
The play was divided into three acts: the first, ‘Fun and Games’ but a prelude to the nightmare yet to follow. Immediately following the main titles, in which we see a slightly inebriated George and Martha stumbling home on foot from a dinner party given by Martha’s father, the Dean of an undisclosed New England college (actual exteriors shot on the campus of Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts), we catch a glimpse of Martha’s sandpaper abrasiveness as she disapprovingly surveys the eclectic disaster zone that is their home, cluttered with a lot of scholarly books, papers, old and careworn furniture, and, other academic paraphernalia, boastfully declaring “What a dump!” The line – excised from the infamous Bette Davis potboiler, Beyond the Forest (1949) - is repeated several times by Taylor; each time, with more flavorful embellishments. Aside: one ponders with mild amusement to think what Davis, the initial frontrunner to play Martha, might have done with this grotesque lampoon of herself.
George is mildly obtuse about both the line and his wife’s nagging inquiries. However, he is stirred to minor irritation when Martha informs him she has invited newly arrived academic, Nick and his wife, Honey to their place for a nightcap. Why bother? After all, they have only just met the young couple; he, a biology professor – twenty-something, ex-footballer with a strong face, shock of blonde hair and taut body Martha finds fitfully attractive; Honey, the mousy little thing lacking all the glamor and ambition Nick has in spades. George will spend the first half of the evening needling Nick about his wife’s narrowness in the hips and their lack of children; eventually liquoring up Honey and spinning her about the room until she is driven to throw-up in the bathroom. Martha thinks Nick is the new adjunct prof in the math department. Either way, it’s not a number’s game she is after, leaving George miffed and Honey mildly unsettled. In between showing Honey about the house and attempting to seduce her husband, Martha goads George and manages to tell Nick and Honey an embarrassing story about the time she sucker-punched George in front of her father. To avenge this humiliation now, George gets a rifle down from the shelf in the storage room, cautiously approaching Martha, Nick and Honey from behind; his sights squarely fixed on the back of Martha’s head.  Catching a glimpse of George out of the corner of her eye, rifle poised; Honey lets out a blood-curdling scream to startle everyone. Martha reels around, staring down the gun barrel, whereupon George pulls the trigger, letting out a trick umbrella from its chamber.  Honey and Nick are understandably relieved, sharing in the joke. But Martha escalates her verbal sparring with George; now, turned moodily acidic and against the supposed son they share which George repeatedly refers to as ‘the little bugger.’
Act Two of the play is esoterically referenced as the ‘Walpurgisnacht’ or ‘annual witches meeting; ironic, since it has much more to do with the menfolk; Nick staggering after a berated George; the boys meeting up near a modest swing hanging from a backyard tree. The men share stories about their wives. Nick confides he only married Honey for her family’s perceived wealth; also, because he believed she was pregnant with his child. Too bad for Nick, Honey’s pains and bloating turned out to be a ‘hysterical pregnancy’ instead. Now, Nick’s stuck with an unattractive wife he doesn’t love and a future unclear, except to say it may or may not involve another stab at firing up the ole furnace for another try at parenthood. Herein, Richard Burton delivers what is probably one of the top ten best soliloquies ever put on film; George relaying a tall tale, presumably from his youth, about a trip to a gin-mill he took with a few fellow classmates; one, having accidentally killed his own mother the summer before while cleaning his rifle in the kitchen. Burton’s incantation of this shy and retiring lad is so vividly recalled that one might almost anticipate seeing him suddenly – if ethereally – materializing from the bushes. What an exceptional actor Burton was, the tenor of his recall shifting from relatively lightheartedness, as George relays how this inexperienced drinker was practically laughed out of the mill for mispronouncing bourbon as ‘bergin’, to a lower timber achieved to retell a rather sinister coda; the boy losing control of his car the following summer and accidentally driving it into a tree, thereupon killing his father, who was in the passenger seat at the time. According to George, the boy, who narrowly survived the wreck, nevertheless lost his mind from grief in the process. He was committed to an asylum, and never spoke again.
In the play, this riveting account was immediately followed by the men rejoining Honey and Martha; George, telling another fictitious story – this one thinly mirroring Nick and Honey’s loveless marriage. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay delays this wounded trust and betrayal, long enough for Nick to openly admit to George he has intentions to charm and screw his way to the top; getting a little of his own back by suggesting Martha might be as good a prospect as any to begin his debaucher’s journey. George is mildly amused. So the stud thinks he can outfox an old campaigner, does he? Insisting on driving Honey and Nick home, George is mildly perturbed when Martha once more begins to talk about ‘their son’; the conversation delayed when Honey, still tipsy, urges an impromptu stopover at a nearby roadhouse. Sandy Dennis’ performance, throughout Virginia Woolf, is one of the most fragile and tragic; a truly lost soul, masking life’s disappointments by constantly stroking her husband’s ego. Intoxication has its liberating effects on Honey, who whirls about the vacant roadhouse, screeching “I dance like the wind” – her embarrassing lack of coordination stifled by Nick’s embarrassed insistence.
However, Nick has designs on Martha, proving he can be just as cruel to both George and Honey by rubbing up against Martha suggestively on the dance floor. Eventually whipped into a frustration, George unplugs the jukebox from the wall, announcing ‘the game’ is over. Undaunted, Martha alludes George may have murdered his parents as the protagonist of his unfinished novel; a revelation causing George to lunge at Martha and attempt a strangulation until Nick pries George’s hands from her neck. Convincing the owner to serve them one last round before their departure, George proposes a game changer, from ‘Humiliate the Host’ to ‘Get the Guests’, before crudely moving on to another ‘group’ activity - Hump the Hostess. To inaugurate this new game, George tells Martha he has written a new novel, one about a young Midwestern couple – a good-looking teacher who enters into a loveless marriage to a ‘mousy’ wife on the falsified pretext she is pregnant. Suddenly realizing the story is about her and Nick, a thoroughly humiliated Honey takes ill for a second time and rushes off. Nick vows to avenge this betrayal before hurrying off to comfort his wife.
In the parking lot, George tells Martha he will brook no more of her humiliations. She hisses back before driving off with Nick and Honey, leaving George to find his own way home on foot. Back at the house, George discovers his abandoned car in the front drive with Honey fast asleep in the backseat. From her semi-conscious ramblings, George deduces Honey was, in fact, pregnant at the time she ‘tricked’ Nick into marrying her, but secretly had an abortion thereafter. Meanwhile, George spies Nick and Martha’s silhouettes through the half-drawn shades of their upstairs’ bedroom, presumably about to engage in the sexual act. Too bad for Martha the young buck has had a little too much to drink. All that ‘bergen’ has affected his libido. Martha is ruthless in her admonishments, George suddenly appearing in the doorway holding a bouquet of snapdragons he hurls at Nick and Martha. George makes a veiled reference to ‘their son’, causing Martha to reflect how George was too rough with the boy during his formative years; George swatting back insinuations of a possible incestuous attraction between mother and son that Martha vehemently denies.
Now, George relays news supposedly received in a telegram, informing him their son was killed in a freak accident on a country road after swerving to avoid a porcupine.  This declaration is verbatim what George told Nick about his friend earlier and Nick suddenly realizes George and Martha have been playing a sadistic game with them all along. Martha and George have no son. As day breaks over the horizon an emotionally distraught Martha is cradled by George. Horrified for having been played the fools, Nick takes Honey home. What a ghoulish couple George and Martha are; he, quietly whispering ‘who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?’, to which a careworn and tear-stained Martha openly confesses, “I am, George…I am.” The penultimate exorcism of this night’s blood sport suffers from quiet defeatism; Martha, momentarily drawn to George in her presumed grief…or rather, her realization George has ‘won’ the game.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is nothing less – and sadly, nothing more – than a showy bit of theater with most of Edward Albee’s articulate profanity lovingly preserved in Ernest Lehman’s uncompromising screenplay. Director, Mike Nichols’ go-for-broke staging of the piece is a tad too predictable and pretentious; relying on something live theater can never give an audience – the close-up. Virtually all of the confrontations we suffer through herein are photographed by Haskell Wexler in tight medium shots and/or close-ups. To some extent, a goodly part of the play’s influence has been blunted when viewed today – not by the enforced ‘changes’ made to land the picture a suitable rating under Jack Valenti’s revised production code – but because, in the interim, there is not much audiences have not been exposed to in the name of high (or even lowborn) dramatics and cinema. Peeling back the layers of Albee’s verbal pyrotechnics reveals just how fragile and nonexistent Virginia Woolf is as ‘a play’ and certainly, as a movie. The whole exercise is anchored by a two hour plus diatribe, drawn out in academic/existentialist nonsense and represented almost as ‘debate’ between a pair of rudimentary theorists on the art of living, but who get off on dismantling each other’s reputations and crippling their psyches in public.
The big reason to see the movie today is the same as it was back in 1966: Elizabeth Taylor’s monumental performance. Arguably, Taylor is vindicated in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as ‘an actress’ rather than ‘a star’; and this, after a prolonged latent period, like a snake shedding its second skin; void of glamour, elegance or even a shred of decency as the bitchy, disheveled and impious Martha. To be sure, Albee’s dialogue is an actor’s dreadful dream, full of vicious humor. But Albee gives most of this clever-cleverness to George; the venom to Martha. Lines like, “I swear, if you existed, I'd divorce you”, “Hey swampy”, “You make me want to puke!” or the ambiguous, “Damn you” (changed from ‘Fuck you!’ in the play) carry a certain thirty second bravado – particularly as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was preceded by forty some years of studio-sanctioned innuendo fervently stamped out at every possible turn by the Production Code. Yet, here, in Taylor’s resurrection of Albee’s Medusa, is the undiluted manifestation of truly wicked beast only hinted at in Taylor’s Oscar-winning performance as the high-priced call girl, Gloria Wondrous in Butterfield 8 (1960). Five years of hard-living with the likes of Richard Burton; also, some intense and deliberately unflattering makeup, have physically transformed the one-time shapely and violet-eyed beauty into the epitome of this shockingly evil and castrating anti-Christ. With her vituperative tongue, capable of painful lacerations to the heart as well as the mind, was there ever a bigger bitch in heat, either on stage or in the movies, than Albee’s Martha?  
A lesser man is George, to be sure. But he is played herein by a titanic presence – an actor’s actor, and, to rarified perfection of a different kind. Virtually all of the appeal in Richard Burton’s recital is strengthened by his abilities to command in the moment. Partly through his inimitable vocalization, that richly timbered and mellifluous baritone, oozing vileness and glib repartee in tandem, Burton can take even a know-nothing comedic line like “Martha is 108... years old. She weighs somewhat more than that” and tease it into a deliciously tart and pronounced declaration of his character’s bottomless scorn, yet equally as bizarre concern for this woman so virtually unlikeable, she would otherwise reign pointless as the repugnant harpy. And Burton gives us a man of influence even when under the influence. While virtually all the remaining principles momentarily lose themselves in the camp of playing slightly inebriated, repeatedly electro-shocked back into reality by the staggering perversity in this exercise of ‘fun and games’, Burton’s George, bookishly dense, modestly short-sighted, and sporting a perpetual scowl that can as easily find surrender as strength, is never entirely a man – surrendered to these belts of booze. Burton’s awesome discipline as a consummate actor is most astutely observed in his loaded exchanges with George Segal. Granted, Segal’s Nick is not the flashier male part, though Segal is quite obviously not in the same league as Burton. But Burton makes even Segal look better – playing to the actor’s limitation rather than overpowering him with his obvious command of the English language. One has to admire Burton for his chutzpah indeed, though also for his ability to know exactly when to pull in his horns just enough so as not to skewer the competition.
The chief problem any first-time viewer likely has with the movie is shared by first-time theater attendees. Albee’s play, as the movie, is uncompromisingly heartless, without even an iota of empathy for its antagonists. Arguably, Albee is not interested in what makes the story superior stagecraft or pure cinema. His focus is on tearing apart, stripping bare, laying to waste and making raw the crises and follies of an already desperately crumbling marriage; Albee’s cerebral pontifications occasionally stifling the forward motion of the narrative, though, in such capable hands as these, never the performances as given. Indeed, even Albee, who had had sincere misgivings about the casting of Taylor and Burton as his warring partners, perhaps fearing their dumb show within his own would too much gild the lily, had laudatory praise for the movie upon its release. Still, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is very much a product of its time. Today, it comes off as intermittently static and wordy, and, in its most bravura moments, as a work, less of daring than just plainly unhinged, gin-soaked craziness, or as noted film critic, Andrew Sarris aptly put it “…a brilliant play about living and a bad play about life”, misguidedly “projecting Albee’s familial fantasies as marital realities…neurotic (with) masks and metaphors and masquerades and tinkling symbols.” As no one under the age of eighteen was allowed to see the picture, no one – least of all the Catholic League of Decency – could accuse Jack Warner of corrupting the moral fiber of impressionable young minds. Viewed today, one sincerely wonders how it ever could, a very sad indictment on just how far down the rabbit hole contemporary society has gone in these intervening years.   
The Warner Archive has promised us a Blu-ray for the end of April. Until then, we have the DVD and a fairly impressive looking one at that. One can speculate on how the Blu-ray image will tighten up and offer additional detail and clarity. But on the whole, the DVD will likely suffice; its grey scale rendered with good, solid tonality and a light smattering of film grain – no doubt, to be emphasized even more on the pending Blu-ray. I really like what’s on the DVD, however; enough to recommend it to most. If you are only an occasional fan of this film and already in possession of this disc, there won’t be much point in upgrading to hi-def. The audio is a very solid mono Dolby Digital. Extras include two audio commentaries, one from Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, the other featuring Haskell Wexler. They’re both worth a listen to, and likely to be ported over to the Blu-ray. I think Nichols’ is the more comprehensive of the two; covering back story, personal recollections, personal stories about Burton and Taylor, the lasting impact of the movie and so on. Wexler sticks pretty close to commenting only on his contributions. We also get a second disc with two featurettes that cover in interview format a lot of the same ground already addressed in these audio commentaries. I have to applaud Warner Home Video for this 2-disc DVD. Again, when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? hits the big time in 1080p it will likely contain all of the goodies listed herein. We’ll wait to see and hope for a hi-def transfer that positively blows this stellar standard def release out of the water. Bottom line: highly recommended…for now.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)