Saturday, December 30, 2017

FOREVER AMBER: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1947) Twilight Time

“The Almighty did not give people eyes to read that rubbish!” – so spaketh Australia’s right honorable Minister for Customs, Senator Keane upon the 1944 publication of Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber; an incendiary novel set during the 1644 revolt in English parliament and spanning many tumultuous years under the reign of Charles II. Winsor could afford to bask in the fervor her book had inspired. Over 100,000 copies sold within the first week; the eventual tally of 3 million, by the time Keane and the Catholic Church had had their say, doing little to stop its runaway success. In fact, it probably helped.  Nothing appeals quite so much to the general public as sin – particularly viewed from the strictures of button-down conservatism run amuck.
Indeed, not even widespread condemnation of the novel as pornography in fourteen U.S. states could prevent it from becoming a best seller.  Winsor’s fifth draft of a bodice-ripping and bed-bouncing page turner caught the eye of publishers. Though they elected to distill her prose to one-third their original size, the novel still sported a formidable girth of 972 pages.  Contained within were references – or, at least inferences – attesting to seventy acts of intercourse, thirty-nine illegitimate pregnancies, seven abortions and ten rather blatant descriptions of women undressing in front of men…shocking! In her own defense, Winsor was to reply some years later, “I wrote only two sexy passages and my publishers took both of them out. They put in ellipses instead. In those days, you know, you could solve everything with an ellipsis.”
By today’s laissez faire standards, allegations of smut are laughable. Forever Amber is nothing if well-written and expertly concocted pulp. Implied or not, Forever Amber comes from a particular ilk in historical romantic fiction, perhaps having reached its zenith with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. In the wake of Mitchell’s zeitgeist and, of course, Selznick’s immortalized and celebrated movie version, other studios began to scramble for like-minded fare; tales of headstrong female protagonists defying the social conventions of their time – and occasionally, also the wisdom of their male ‘superiors’ – to bring about scandal and reformation; though ultimately wreck and ruin upon their own heads. Such was the tortured suffering of the fictionalized female martyr; ringing truer still to the American woman circa 1942 and beyond. As the menfolk went off to fight in another war, the home front became a bastion for the pursuit of meaningful work outside of the home. Hence, the independent woman rising above squalid circumstances by her wit and stubbornness alone proved an elixir of the times.
Alas, Forever Amber presented Darryl F. Zanuck with a considerable quandary. For the novel’s Amber St. Clair was something of a truly unrepentant harpy; deliciously vial in spots and maliciously inclined to stir men’s hearts to her own advantage, whatever the sacrifices made along the way. In some ways, Amber and Scarlett O’Hara are kissing cousins; although it is unlikely either could have been friends: too much similarity and competition. Translating the book to the screen also presented deeper concerns. How to tell the tale of an enterprising creature who effectively wenches her way into Charles II’s court, gives birth out of wedlock, murders a nurse and is responsible for the death of at least two men – one, her lover, the other her husband. Surely, Hollywood censors would object…and did! To be sure, Winsor’s novel counterbalances such overt debaucheries with selfless acts of human sacrifice; Amber’s devotion to Bruce Carlton; the heroic officer who cannot recognize her qualities beyond a brief night’s interlude, resulting in a child; her never waning devotion to him (nursing Bruce back from the plague) despite her frequent dalliances with courtiers and the King. 
Zanuck was forced by the Production Code to omit virtually all of the novel’s more salacious moments. As a result, Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1947) became something of a sissified wan ghost flower of its source material, the emasculation utterly complete by the casting of fresh-faced Linda Darnell as the fiery and uncompromising vixen; herein more prone to sulking and skulking about the antechambers and bedrooms of some well-heeled suitors in Fox’s most expensive production to date.  Screenwriters Philip Dunne and Ring Lardner Jr. did their utmost to ‘suggest’ the tawdry appeal of the novel; their efforts submarined by Zanuck’s inability to spend as lavishly as he would have preferred. Hitherto, the novel’s reputation as a provocative page-turner had also begun to cool. Although Zanuck’s publicity department gave the movie a big build-up, Forever Amber was something of a modest success to meager disappointment for the studio.
Removed from all of its timely hype, Forever Amber – the movie – is a fairly enjoyable romp, never entirely prone to bouts of tedium, though occasionally veering dangerously close to becoming a wordy critique on classicist social mores, vices and virtues. Moodily lit and photographed by cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, exquisitely scored by David Raksin, and, given over to the visual aplomb of production designer, Lyle Wheeler and costumer, René Hubert, Forever Amber emerged as something of a lush and lovely, eye-popping spectacle; Fox’s trademarked garish use of Technicolor at its most gaudy and glistening, yields to a ravishing milieu that tragically and singularly fails to enthrall. Perhaps audiences of the day expected better – or at least – more of the novel’s combustible and scintillating ardor. The movie equally suffers from the miscasting of Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde; two undeniably handsome people who fail to generate the elusive spark of on-screen chemistry to make their passionate love affair click. It doesn’t help the screenplay keeps its lovers apart for the bulk of the film’s138 minute run time. While Darnell is in virtually every scene, Wilde floats in and out of the story – each time with a little more abject contempt and self-righteous piety for our sexually adventurous heroine.   
Our tale begins on a lonely country road during the revolt of English Parliament. Oliver Cromwell’s armies have set ablaze the court of King Charles I; the royal carriage escaping with a baby swaddled in a blanket; the name ‘Amber’ embroidered on it. Moments before Cromwell’s forces assassinate the coachman and protectors of this noble babe, one of the guards manage to leave the bundle on the front stoop of a Puritan farmer, Matt Goodgroome (Leo G. Carroll) and his wife (Edith Evanson). The couple secretly rears the girl as their own. Amber (Linda Darnell) grows up willful and resentful for being forced to remain on this bucolic hamlet and seemingly reticent about marrying any of the men her father may chose as her husband. Instead, learning of a coach carrying noblemen Lord Bruce Carlton (Cornell Wilde) and his best friend, Lord Harry Almsbury (Richard Green), Amber hurries to the local inn, pretending to have come to assist the innkeepers in their duties for the night.
After the others have gone to bed, Amber implores Bruce to take her to London. He is unimpressed by her begging – even by her beauty, which is considerable; perhaps already understanding with a clear eye and uncompromising heart, just how wickedly determined the girl is to have her way. She cares not for him; only for what she can get from him in her blind-sided pursuit of a better life. Harry is smitten with Amber. But she is oblivious to his sincere affections. Realizing Amber prefers Bruce, for the girl is rather transparent in her desires, Harry magnanimously encourages his best friend to reconsider. Bruce, however, is equally as stubborn as Amber, perhaps more so. Amber defies Bruce’s rejection, tailing the pair to London where she deceptively worms her way into Bruce’s heart, convincing him of her ‘genuine affections’. The two quickly become lovers and Bruce begins to care for Amber. Tragedy will eventually unravel their lives, ironically as Amber grows increasingly sincere in her love for Bruce, while he jealously spurs her affections.
In the meantime, the randy king with a roving eye, Charles II (George Sanders) believes Bruce is still harboring affections toward his present mistress, Barbara Palmer, Countess Castelmaine (Natalie Draper), with whom Bruce once carried on a fairly torrid liaison. To clear the playing field, Charles orders Bruce into a privateering mission in the South Seas. Harry encourages Bruce to tell Amber the truth, but Bruce elects to sneak off into the night instead, leaving Harry with the unpleasant task of informing Amber their brief affair is at an end. Still unconvinced of the depth of Amber’s affections, Bruce has nevertheless not been unkind, affording Amber 200 pounds to satisfy all existing debts; also, to leave a comfortable sum to support her while she searches for suitable work.  Amber gives birth to their child – a secret she has kept locked tight inside her heart. Afterward, she makes provisions to have the child reared in the country while she pursues other prospects.
Regrettably, without Bruce as her protector, and still very much naïve to the ways of the world, Amber is swindled out of these savings by her dressmaker, Mrs. Abbott (Norma Varden) and a crooked investor, Landale (Alan Napier). In the resulting trial to settle Amber’s outstanding debts, Abbott and Landale suggest Amber is the con artist. With no one to speak for her, the judge sentence Amber to prison. There, Amber is made the object of affection for the male prisoners, catching the eye of highwayman, ‘Black’ Jack Mallard (John Russell).  Like the others, Jack wants more from Amber than she is ultimately willing to give.  However, she strikes a bargain – one of mutual benefit. Jack is scheduled to hang. Instead, he manages a daring escape, taking Amber with him to the house of aider/abettor Mother Red Cap (Anne Revere) who is none too friendly, but decides Amber has certain qualities to be exploited. Jack and Red Cap use Amber to lure rich men from the tavern into a nearby alley where Jack and his cohorts brutally attack and rob them of their purses.
Tragically, one such ambush goes hopelessly awry; the police cornering and killing Jack. Amber narrowly escapes, taking refuge in the home of Captain Rex Morgan (Glenn Langan). Discovered by Rex, Amber’s first inclination is to lie about fleeing an unwanted roué’s advances. However, when the king’s guard comes to his front door, explaining the real reason for their search, Morgan lies to save Amber from prosecution. Next, he endeavors to spare Amber from the hangman’s noose by encouraging the director of the nearby theater to take the girl on as an understudy. Under provisions from the crown, all actors share the king’s protection – hence, Amber cannot be prosecuted for her crime.  Diligently, Amber procures enough savings to ‘buy back’ her son from Red Cap and send him to the country for good.
Rex is hardly the benevolent sort, however. In fact, when he unearths that Amber has been seeing Bruce while he was in Wales he accuses Bruce of dishonor. Unable to convince Rex no such infraction was intended, Bruce is forced into a duel. Several times, Bruce attempts to alter the rules of the game so a mere flesh wound will satisfy Rex’s sense of chivalry. Alas, Rex arrogantly proclaims the duel will only end when one of them is dead. Amber arrives on the field of battle, consoled by Harry in the murky early morning fog while the conflict unfolds.  Resigned to satisfy the gentleman’s honor, Bruce begrudgingly kills Rex with his sword. Believing she is now free to pursue the only relationship ever truly desired, Amber’s dreams of a life together with Bruce are thwarted when he becomes plagued by guilt for taking a man’s life and blames Amber for both their plights. Whether Amber realizes it immediately or not, the love they once shared has died along with Rex on the field of honor. Bruce will never take her back.
Bruce leaves England again. This time in his absence, Amber is wooed by the widowed Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Hayden) who is far too old for her. At first, refusing his advances, Amber eventually agrees to be wed to this elder statesman. Such a union will afford her not only the luxuries of the earl’s wealth, but also a title above Bruce’s own. Alas, Amber’s fragile reasoning and flawed logic for the marriage is interrupted when, on her wedding day no less, she learns from Harry that Bruce has returned and is, at this very moment, attempting to unload his ship’s cargo at the docks in London. The city is under the siege of the plague; Amber disobeying Harry’s sound advice and setting aside her safety to race to the docks. There, she discovers Bruce already stricken with the first signs of the plague. Rushing him to the nearby boarded up home once shared with Rex, Amber attempts to nurse Bruce back to health. Before long, however, she discovers herself ill equipped, employing a nurse of spurious credentials, Mrs. Spong (Margaret Wycherly), to look after her beloved as he continues to slip in and out of delirium. Discovering Amber’s wedding ring on the kitchen table while Amber is asleep at Bruce’s bedside, Mrs. Spong plots to steal both it and a priceless cameo from the end table next to Bruce’s bed. Thankfully, her plot to strangle the weakened Bruce after he stirs in the middle of her foiled robbery is thwarted by Amber who awakens and strangling Mrs. Spong instead, passing off her lifeless body to one of the quarantine guards as just another victim of the plague.
Bruce recovers. And although Amber is overjoyed, the Earl of Radcliffe – having found them out – orders Bruce to never return to England. Bruce elects to go to Virginia and Amber is increasingly kept under lock and key by the Earl, who has become boorish and domineering; even preventing Amber from an audience with Charles II after she makes quite an impression at one of his court balls at Whitehall. Later, fire rips through the city. Despite its approaching threat, the earl refuses to release Amber from her locked bedroom in Radcliffe Hall. She is eventually saved from certain death as the flames lick up the sides of the walls by the earl’s devoted servant, Galeazzo (Jimmy Ames) who, realizing him mad with jealousy, murders his master, before tossing him into the inferno.
Free of her husband – though not his money – Amber now pursues Charles II and is swiftly ensconced as the King’s mistress at Whitehall. Reveling in her newfound position, Amber has everything she could possibly want – except love. And Charles, apart from being tempted by her sinful beauty, is no fool. Hence, when their garden interlude is interrupted by the sudden reappearance of Bruce with another woman, Corinne (Jane Ball), Charles’ senses the need to draw the couple nearer his own bosom to better understand how deeply Amber’s heart stirs. Bruce introduces Corinne as his wife. The two were married in Virginia. Determined to wreck the marriage, Amber invites Corinne as a guest of the King to Whitehall for the evening, feigning a headache and thus leaving Corinne alone to be seduced by Charles in his parlor. Amber is certain Charles will waste no time. Hence, she preempts the moment by concocting a letter exposing Corrine’s infidelity to Bruce.
Instead, Corinne impresses Charles with her devotion to Bruce and her honesty. Moreover, he can completely admire and appreciate a woman’s loyalty above all else; particularly since he now unequivocally understands Amber harbors no such sincerities toward him. Calling Amber on her bluff, Charles quietly explains he has not minded playing the fop in her sadistic plan. He only regrets Amber will never truly love him. As there are plenty of other willing maidens to choose from, Charles orders Amber from the palace – a particularly costly exile. Amber’s only consolation is that Bruce Jr. will be coming with her. Perhaps together in the country they can begin anew – mother and son.  Bruce arrives at the palace as the ladies in waiting are nearly finished packing Amber’s possessions. He tells Amber he and Corinne desire to adopt the child. But Amber is vehemently opposed to giving up the one treasure she has left to sell; especially since Bruce intends to rear the boy in Virginia. Alas, the decision is not up to Amber. For, having told Bruce their son may choose for himself which parent he would prefer, Amber is bitterly disillusioned when the child (knowing nothing of their panged relationship) elects to go to America with his father, whom he has only superficially known at best. Angrily, Amber banishes Bruce and their son from her quarters, rushing to the window with bittersweet tears to quietly observe as her last hope for any happiness is dashed; Bruce and his son departing from the kingdom in his carriage.
On paper, Forever Amber is a fairly ambitious and compelling tale of a woman’s self-destruction, made wholly and unnecessarily complicated and complete by her own ill-fated life’s decisions. On film, however, the plight of Amber St. Clair becomes little more than rank melodrama, gussied up by A-list production values. The Dunne/Lardner screenplay does an impressive job of distilling the novel’s timeline into a manageable would-be epic. But at 138 minutes, Forever Amber falls short of the ‘road show’ spectacle Zanuck had originally envisioned, in part, because the movie’s rough cut was eviscerated in the editing process at the behest of the Production Code: whole scenes excised and/or re-shot to receive its seal of approval. Zanuck’s clashes with the code are legendary. In hindsight, his reoccurring battles on Forever Amber, having to veer so far away from the novel in order to make any movie based upon it, were a primary reason Zanuck would later cite for leaving Fox at its zenith to make pictures independently abroad. If Forever Amber lacks narrative impetus or character motivation, it is arguably the fault of Zanuck’s inability to win these battles with censorship rather than Zanuck’s fervent desire and meticulous pre-planning to transform the novel into a screen spectacle on par with Gone with the Wind.
Sadly, Forever Amber is no Gone with the Wind, despite its all-star cast and the immeasurable gifts bestowed upon its production by those toiling being the scenes. What’s there is always expertly crafted, if leaden when realized by Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde. Curiously, Darnell seems reticent to portray the sultry Amber in all her ruthless objectives. Darnell was hardly a stranger to playing the vixen as she had already amply proven with Chihuahua in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) and would illustrate again, as Lora May Hollingsway two years thereafter for Joe Mankewicz in A Letter to Three Wives (1949). As Amber St. Clair, Darnell is stiff and uninspired: pitiably nervous at times too and simpering to a fault. Amber ought to have been a fiery wench who could either gingerly cut her teeth on any man’s heart or trample it into the ground. Darnell’s viper is little more than a wounded lamb in wolf’s clothing; lost, confused and totally out of her depth.
Cornel Wilde’s career has always fascinated me. Here is a man who rarely rises above his material and frequently pandered to the crowd by unabashedly displaying the obviousness of his physical prowess as compensation. Yet, even in his own time ‘hunks’ were considered a dime a dozen, rarely given the opportunity to progress beyond B-grade matinee idol. By comparison, Wilde’s career is downright enviable, playing everything from a flamboyant trapeze artist (The Greatest Show on Earth 1952) to Frédéric Chopin (A Song to Remember 1945). Along the way, he appeared opposite an privileged roster of A-list leading ladies and worked for some of Hollywood’s biggest directors. To what fairy godmother does the actor owe his career? Hmmm. In Forever Amber, Wilde seems moderately hampered by his effete wig; given shoulder pads that would make Dynasty’s Joan Collins green with envy. He’s competent - though just barely and mostly forgettable and flat. Forever Amber would have immensely benefited from the presence of a Clark Gable or William Holden. But Wilde was under contract to Zanuck, so we get his particular brand of mediocrity instead.
Forever Amber arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time, alas, with far less than stellar results. At the time Fox chose to release this movie via its MOD/DVD archive, I considered that disc nothing better than a Frisbee. I now suspect these very same elements have been regurgitated for this new to Blu release. What an ugly little mess it is!  The main titles appear crisp and inviting. But once we move into the body of the piece it’s the same old story. We all know the history of Fox’s short-sightedness in the mid-1970’s; junking virtually all of their original 3-strip Technicolor elements and archiving only poorly contrasted (oft, misregistered) Eastman IP’s for posterity. Badly done, but especially for a picture like Forever Amber, on which Zanuck had lavished a grotesque amount of time and money (the picture, holding the dubious distinction of being the most expensive movie ever made at Fox from 1947 to 1956). Virtually none of these assets are on full display in this abysmal and very second-rate 1080p offering.
We have witnessed Fox work minor miracles on other back catalog suffering a similar fate; Leave Her To Heaven (1945), Captain from Castile (1947) and Niagara (1953) among them. Make no mistake: none of the aforementioned accurately recaptures the vibrancy of vintage Technicolor either. But at least they sport reasonably attractive and refined images, with considerable color correction and image stabilization applied to elicit a watchable incarnation. Forever Amber has not been the recipient of such attention to detail. I would argue, this is not even a new scan from Fox because what I am seeing here looks suspiciously close to my DVD-viewing experience with marginal improvements in overall image resolution. Flesh tones are atrociously orange here. The whole image tends to lean rather severely towards dark and muddy navy blues and/or pinkish reds. We get clumpy colors throughout that, at times, suggest an almost ‘colorized’ approach to a vintage B&W movie.
Worse, minor edge enhancement has been applied to an image that, for the most part, is sorely lacking in any fine detail, is frequently soft, slightly out of focus to downright blurry, and sports amplified film grain and weaker than anticipated contrast. This renders dark, or dimly lit scenes (of which there are many) a muddy and indistinguishable mess. Honestly, this is one of the worst looking 1080p transfers to emerge from Fox’s mastering facilities. I find nothing remotely redeemable to recommend it to you!  In no way does Forever Amber minutely hint, or even aspire to replicate its vintage Technicolor. There are moments where only disembodied heads are discernible on the screen, floating in a sea of murky blue-blackness. Misalignment of the original 3-strip Technicolor also results in very annoying halos throughout this transfer.
Lastly, the Fox logo appearing at the beginning of Forever Amber is not indigenous to the period – but rather from a vintage owing to the late 70’s, window-boxed to give the illusion it belongs, and, significantly grainier than the rest of the image that follows it. In the 70’s it became something of the mis-guided fashion among all of the studios to take their older movies, lop off the original logos and insert what was then their more contemporary alternatives. Dumb! Ridiculous practice, indeed. Fox could have easily unearthed a vintage logo to reinstate for this transfer. A good many Fox movies from this same vintage have already found their way to Blu-ray with the gaudy-hue Technicolor Fox logo. So, how hard could it have been to do the same here?!? Also, if this transfer has been derived from a new 4K scan, as it has been advertised, it's one of the most disheartening examples I have ever seen - period!  
Forever Amber’s original mono audio has been faithfully reproduced with minimal hiss and virtually no pop – impressive on the whole. Two extras to consider: the first, A&E's Biography Special on Linda Darnell (good to have this back on home video), and David Raksin’s superb underscore, isolated on an alternative track. It’s one of the composer’s best, superbly orchestrated by Fox’s resident composer/conductor, Alfred Newman. Bottom line: pass, and be very glad that you did! Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Friday, December 15, 2017

DRIFTWOOD: Blu-ray (Republic Pictures, 1947) Kino Lorber

The Hollywood of today bears no earthly resemblance to its fabled past; nor, with any degree of frequency, does it choose to acknowledge it except for the riches still occasionally to be mined from its byproduct (celluloid art), re-branded to home video. Studios fortunate enough to have survived the mid-seventies deluge, purge and plunder that transformed such hallowed archives into a glorified garage sale (or worse, merely junked the past to make room in their vaults for the then present), have since retained the status of their iconic logos (the Paramount ‘mountain’, MGM’s Leo The Lion, the Columbia ‘lady with the torch’, etc. et al). These trademarks continue to precede, in most cases, movies made independently by smaller production houses with funding from ‘the majors’ – now reduced to mere lenders/distributors of somebody else’s efforts, trading on their trademark for cache and credibility. For the most part, the history of Republic Pictures has been expunged from these public records. Republic was, in fact, the brain child of investor/producer, Herbert J. Yates; a conglomeration of six meager production houses (Monogram Pictures, Mascot Pictures, Liberty Pictures, Majestic Pictures, Chesterfield Pictures and Invincible Pictures), similar only in their collective status as ‘Poverty Row’.  Yates’ film laboratory, Consolidated Film Industries, was responsible for servicing virtually all of the majors during the 1930’s. But what Yates really wanted was to be a mogul. In 1935, he had his way. Amalgamating the aforementioned six under one banner, Republic would quickly establish itself as a collaborative enterprise where competently produced low budget programmers were made.
Monogram’s nationwide distribution system was effectively wed to Mascot’s first-rate production facility and Majestic’s ability to draw on big-name talent on loan out, along with renting sets to give a good many of their movies a more polished look. Republic culled its roster of employees from all six studios’, the merger also affording its pictures higher than usual budgets, directly equating to better films being made. The aegis was not without its hiccups. Monogram effectively separating from Republic in 1937 after producers, Trem Carr and W. Ray Johnston felt Yates had begun to exude far too much control over their efforts. Ultimately, Yates would systematically purge himself of his high-end partnerships, acquiring senior staff subservient to his edicts in lieu of peers eager to assert their own independence. There are many reasons why Republic never quite attained the kind of immortality Yates had initially hoped for; not the least, his obsession to transform Czechoslovakian ex-pat ice-skater, Vera Ralston (with whom he was having an affair, and, would later make his wife) into a major star, despite the public’s indifference to Ms. Ralston’s ‘charms’. But by 1958, the dream had ended – Yates, officially conceding defeat by announcing to his Board of Directors the end of the line for Republic Pictures.
Allan Dwan’s Driftwood (1947) falls into Republic’s vein of ‘hillbilly’ pictures; sincerely themed little stories of heartfelt struggle and survival, with a slant distinctly meant to appeal to rural enclaves, otherwise to have considered a good deal of movie-land’s more opulent product too gosh darn highfalutin for their simpler bucolic tastes.  Driftwood is, in fact, a great ‘little’ picture, cribbing from stellar ‘character’ actors usually relegated in support of bigger names elsewhere, but herein given a lot more to do, and proving (as though proof itself were required), they are more than capable at their craft. Ruth Warrick is curiously top billed as Susan Moore, despite having a lesser role than practically anyone else in the cast. Warrick, who would much later achieve ever-lasting fame on TV’s daytime soap, All My Children, never quite found her niche in the movies, even though she was prominently featured in such high-profile productions as Citizen Kane (1941) and Song of the South (1946). Others of merit herein include Walter Brennan, as lovably irascible small-town pharmacist, Murph’; Dean Jagger as Dr. Steve Webster, filmdom’s benevolent ‘every man’ on the cusp of a great discovery; leggy Charlotte Greenwood, as the spinsterish Aunt Mathilda, silent screen veteran, H.B. Warner (Rev. J. Hollingsworth) and Jerome Cowan, perennially to play the persnickety villain (herein, as Mayor Snyder).
Yet, it was nine-year old Natalie Wood who towered above these veterans. It behooves us to recall what a spark of brilliance Wood was on camera: a child-star, seemingly tinged by an uncanny wherewithal, effortlessly to make the transition to teen, and finally, adult roles with such startling effectiveness, Orson Welles once commented, “she’s so good she’s terrifying.” Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed Wood in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (also released in 1947) was as blown away by her professionalism. “In all my years I never met a smarter moppet!”  Director, Sydney Pollack would later summarize Wood’s talent thus, “When she was right for the part there was nobody better. Just a damn good actress!” We can concur with all these assessments; Wood, the quintessence of wide-eyed innocence as pint-size Jenny Hollingsworth, a Bible-weened tot left to her own survival after her pastor/grandfather’s quiet death in an abandoned church located in the abandoned town of Bullfrog Springs. Jenny is left to wander the haunted desert by night (akin to the valley of the shadow of death), mistaking an airplane from the nearby flight academy, its engines on fire and about to crash, as B.L. Zebub. She discovers a kindred spirit in the collie having survived this crash that she rechristens as ‘Hollingsworth.’    
A short while later, country doctor Steve Webster discovers Jenny and Hollingsworth by the side of the road. Electing to drive her into the nearby community in which he resides, Steve attempts to unload Jenny on Sheriff Bolton (James Bell). Alas, there is no place for the girl; the orphanage, a considerable distance from this isolated community. So, Steve takes Jenny home, to the house he shares with Murph, the local pharmacist. Murph is a curmudgeon. But like most, his gruff exterior is mere façade. Before long, Murph warms to Jenny, giving her a bubble bath (the first she has ever known) and sharing stories about Steve’s girlfriend, Susan Moore and her spinster aunt, Mathilda. Predictably, these tales will come back to haunt Murph when Jenny naively questions their validity with the ladies, incurring Mathilda’s ire. Susan is willing to look after Jenny for a few days while Steve continues his research for a cure to Rocky Mountain spotted fever, experimenting with infected ticks on his back porch. Steve has always insisted their community is ill-prepared for an epidemic. But the Mayor makes light of Steve’s claims, labeling them as cheap paranoia to get the town council to vote on building him a hospital in which to continue his practice. Susan has been sweet on Steve as long as she can remember. And although he appears to harbor similar feelings, even expressing jealously when Mayor Snyder makes his benign plea to Sue for consideration as a suitor, Steve nevertheless resists even the thought of putting a ring on her finger until he can afford to wed and support her in style.
Susan is wary Steve will leave her for a research grant position he has applied for with the Field Institute in San Francisco. Overhearing this conversation, but understanding very little about it, Jenny nevertheless hides Steve’s acceptance letter in his desk drawer when it arrives. At the local soda fountain run by Essie Keenan (Margaret Hamilton) the Mayor’s bullying son, Lester (Teddy Infuhr) taunts Jenny in front of the other children; making fun of her clothes. The Mayor compounds Jenny’s humiliation by referring to her as ‘driftwood’; a moniker she knows not yet to be ashamed. Determined Jenny should hold her head up high, Steve picks out an entire wardrobe of for her at Judge Beckett’s (Hobart Cavanaugh) clothiers shop, offering free tonsillectomies for all three of his sons in trade. Once again, Lester terrorizes Jenny. Only this time, Hollingsworth comes to her defense, knocking the boy off his feet and pulling down his trousers. Ashamed by the incident, Lester claims he was bitten by a vicious dog, urging the Mayor to demand the animal be destroyed. When the sheriff comes for Hollingsworth, Jenny momentarily sets him free. Fatefully, she is bitten by one of Steve's experimental/infected ticks.
At the rigged trial, the judge rules Hollingsworth should be destroyed. But at the last possible moment, Murph is granted permission to examine Lester for bite marks.  When none are found, Lester’s lie is exposed and the dog’s life is spared. Meanwhile, nearby farmer, Clem Perkins' (Ray Teal) son, Blaine (Zeke Holland) contracts spotted fever and regrettably dies from it. In full panic mode, the whole town lines up on Steve’s front porch to get vaccinated. Jenny falls ill and Steve realizes there is not enough serum to inoculate everyone. Desperate to save Jenny, Steve is made aware that Hollingsworth was actually the dog that survived the plane crash; a lab animal whose blood seems immune to the effects of the fever. Alerting scientist, Dr. Nicholas Adams (Alan Napier) of his find, the two physicians put their heads together in a race against time. Adams instructs Steve how to create more serum from Hollingsworth’s blood. Upon recreating the formula, Steve injects Jenny with a dose and waits for its healing properties to take effect. Jenny’s recovery earns Steve a $5,000 grant to continue his research. At long last realizing his place, Steve elects to remain in town and marry Susan, the two likely to adopt Jenny as their own.
Driftwood is a delightful family film, exceedingly good-natured, despite being rather cloying at times and downright predictable at other intervals.  The screenplay by Mary Loos and Richard Sale is formulaic and, on occasion, heavy-handed in its premise of an innocent who knows her Scripture backwards and forwards, but has never seen a bubble bath. What the Hollywood of yore could do during its glory years with such a cast of players as these, devoted to giving such fundamentally flawed material their all. Driftwood excels mostly because its principle cast is culled from accomplished talents who understand both the complexities and subtleties of the story they are trying to tell. There’s no great groundswell of drama here; no overpowering cues of orchestral underscore to punctuate raw human emotions periodically exposed, in tandem, to tear-jerking and comedic effect. No, what comes across in spades is the gentleness of the piece, gingerly massaged under Allan Dwan’s skilled direction. Natalie Wood’s central performance is immaculate and genuine. She believes every word and we, in turn, discover deeper truths emerging from the depths of her empathy-emitting eyes and tender strains, leant to panged childhood longing for a better start in this world. Wood’s Jenny is the catalyst for much social change among these good citizens and she virtually carries the picture on the strength of her convictions.
I wish I could say the same for Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release. As it is the season for wishes, I sincerely have two for this distributor and its affiliates. First, that Kino begin 2018 by making more aggressive demands from its partnerships to improve the overall quality of their hi-def releases, and second, that its affiliates see the light and step up to the plate, offering Kino better quality masters in tandem to their needs as one of the most prolific indie distributors in the home video biz these days. Quantity and quality do not go hand in glove and Kino’s spotty track record has veered from some absolutely gorgeous offerings to less than stellar ‘bargain bin’ releases (though hardly at a ‘bargain bin’ price point). It may sound like I am pissing on Kino needlessly. I get that. But realistically, we are no longer in the infancy of Blu-ray mastering. If a movie is decided worthy of a hi-def release it deserves the utmost consideration to achieve as good a quality as can be achieved, taking into account budgetary restrictions and also, more critical asset assessment of all surviving archival elements.
This Blu-ray of Driftwood is described by Kino as having been derived from a ‘brand new HD master from a 4K scan’. The rights to the picture reside with Paramount. We all know what sort of slap-dash track record ‘the mountain’ has had with regards to reissuing its deep catalog in hi-def. I mean, we are still waiting for a quality hi-def transfer for 1988’s Witness, and a first Blu-ray release of Paramount’s Roman Holiday (1953), and its Oscar-winning Best Pictures; The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and Ordinary People (1980). So, you know…not exactly a progressive company. And, I certainly cannot imagine Driftwood as the sort of offering to recoup such an investment from a ground-up restoration effort. That said, this Blu-ray comes so ‘gosh darn’ very close to delivering the goods. This is why I am exceedingly frustrated by its shortcomings.
Having spent obvious coin to eradicate age-related artifacts and stabilize the image, it seems nothing was done to balance contrast levels that are so anemic the visuals appear as though they have been dipped in a milky bath. Badly faded is a better descriptor here; and curiously soft, lacking any sort of real clarity or definition, except in close-ups. It also appears as though some untoward DNR has been applied – not to egregious levels, but nevertheless, contributing to the overall homogenized ‘smooth’ look of this release. Film grain…where is it?!? The audio is, of course, DTS mono and adequately represented. We also get a fairly informative audio commentary from film historian, Jeremy Arnold. 
Again, I just wish those in charge of remastering classics to Blu-ray would pay just a bit more attention to the work being done. It really makes no sense to perform a costly 4K scan of a flawed element without the necessary tweaking to get it just right. I would not have expected Driftwood to receive a first 4K scan Blu-ray release. I have very little hope it will receive a second, derived from a contrast-corrected print master. So, likely this is the best this movie will ever look in hi-def. That’s a pity. Especially since it isn’t the best it can look! Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, December 13, 2017

GIDGET: Blu-ray (Columbia 1959) Twilight Time

“If you’re in doubt about angels being real…” Oops – sorry. Wrong Gidget. Or rather, right Gidget…the mother of all Gidgets, in fact. Widely regarded as the movie to have kicked off the ‘beach blanket’ badinage that would later follow it, not to mention the legitimate Gidget sequels and short-lived TV series starring Sally Fields, director Paul Wendkos’ Gidget (1959) is fluffy, good-natured, wholesome fun; the quintessential ‘coming of age’/teen romance drive-in flick for which ‘the sound of youth’ (later, spoofed in Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii, 1961) was invented. Based on author, Frederick Kohner’s series of novels, begun with 1957’s Gidget: The Little Girl with Big Ideas, Gidget, the movie is a sun-kissed frolic that today, very much warms our hearts as a quaint reminder of the way things used to be. It’s the ‘oh by gosh and golly’ magic of it all that remains so…well, ‘gosh darn’ invigorating nearly 60 years later. 60 years?!?! Kowabunga, dude. Where has the time gone? This latter reference is, of course, a nod to the picture’s surf-themed misadventures of our Gidg’; surfing then, an alien experience, tinged with an air of exoticism for anyone not of the Californian or Hawaiian persuasion. The term ‘gidget’ is actually an abbreviation for ‘girl midget’ that today’s political correctness would likely lengthen to “g’little people”. Whatever.
For anyone growing up in the early 1970’s, my opening reference will remind them, either fondly or ‘un’, of mid-summer television reruns from that other short-lived series starring Sally Fields, its bouncy tune, ‘Wait’ll You See My Gidget’ penned by Messer’s Howard Greenfield and Jack Keller, rather fetchingly warbled (after the pilot episode) by Johnny Tillotson (sounding uncannily like Bobby Rydell). This movie has another, as catchy title tune written by Patti Washington and Fred Karger, harmonized by The Four Preps, and later, reprised as a partial love ballad sung by the movie’s co-star, James Darren, who acquits himself rather nicely of the more upbeat, ‘The Next Best Thing to Love’ – serenading our star, Sandra Dee with lyrics by Stanley Styne, perfectly married to another set of neatly arranged notes composed by Karger. The outstanding ‘musical’ highlight of the picture remains ‘Cinderella’ – sung by The Four Preps (a California quartet sounding – and dressing – very much like The Beach Boys), performing their smash single, made exclusively possible through a licensing agreement with Capitol Records.  
Formed, as a good many ‘boy bands’ were back then, not by overly-processed/prepackaged hype, but a chance meeting between four high school buddies, fairly to knock the socks off a Capitol Records scout at their 1956 Hollywood High talent show; from then on, the boys were off and running with no less than 13 chart-grabbing hits – the mega-million seller 26 Miles, earning them a gold record. As with most groups swamped by the mid-60’s British invasion of pop singers, in the wake of the tsunami known as The Beatles’, the Preps’ popularity went into steep decline. After several changes, they officially disbanded in 1969. Yet, one has to sincerely admire the fifties for its wide-eyed optimism, typified by groups like The Four Preps and movies like Gidget. In a decade overrun by changing tastes, oft taken to cliché in the socially-repressed Eisenhower era (America’s heavily distilled impressions of itself, both as a world super power and buttoned down ultra-conservative nation of do-gooders, riding the crest of their newfound post-WWII economic prosperity), the allure of that mythology, in suggesting nothing bad could or would ever happen ‘from sea to shining sea’ was just too good to be true or indefinitely last. It also appears deceptively ‘normal’ for the fifties. But the engineering gone into such a lithe and optimistic flick like Gidget is – at least today – less of a foregone and effortless conclusion than the exemplar of carefully orchestrated Sport n’ Shave Ken-dolls meet Suzie-Cream-Cheeses from the suburbs: a propaganda puff piece, shamelessly meant to promote an American ideal that never actually existed, as universally accepted and culturally – ‘the norm’ (as our Gidg’ puts it) in ‘total awesomeness’. It’s just plain silly to fight it. The fifties were fabulous…for some.
Gidget made a household name of Sandra Dee (born, Alexandra Ruck of Russian-Orthodox faith). Depending on the source consulted, Dee’s meteoric rise is ascribed to producer, Ross Hunter. Long before she was cast in his glossy remake of Imitation of Life (1959), Dee had been the reigning gamin of New York fashion; earning an impressive $75,000 annually as a model at the age of twelve. She also suffered from a horrendous crash diet to maintain her lithesome, flat-chested frame; her slavish devotion almost costing Dee her life. At one point, Dee’s anorexia made her unable to properly digest food. She had to learn how to eat all over again. Better things were in store, however. In 1957, the same year Kohner published his first Gidget novel, Dee made the transition to Hollywood, appearing in Robert Wise’s Until They Sail. Her looks and talent, touted by gossip maven Louella Parsons as the new Shirley Temple, quickly earned Dee the right to be cast as the lead in Vincente Minnelli’s frothy comedy of errors, The Reluctant Debutante (1958). Signing a multi-picture deal with Universal gave the studio the option to loan her out for several pictures, including Gidget (produced at Columbia). Immediately following Gidget’s box office success the studio would have liked nothing better than to include Dee in a pair of sequels. Regrettably – at least for Columbia, Universal had more prescient plans; Dee appearing in two more loan outs, including the iconic ‘A Summer Place’ over at Warner Bros. (all three made and released in 1959); Dee earning the respect of her peers and a rank as the 16th most popular star in the land. By 1960 it would jump to #7!
Stardom alas, and more often than not, is a very double-edged sword, and after Dee’s frenzied marriage to hip-swiveling pop sensation, Bobby Darin (the two were wed in 1960 and divorced barely 7 years later), she steadily retreated from the spotlight, appearing sporadically in movies and on television, succumbing to bouts of alcoholism, depression and chronically plagued by anorexia. When Darin tragically died at the age of 37 in 1973, Dee elected to retire from the national consciousness; briefly revived in lyrics to a song from the movie, Grease (1978). Describing herself as “a has been who never was”, Dee would live long enough to know the indignation of seemingly being forgotten, her death at the age of 62 in 2005 brought on by complications from kidney disease. It’s hard, if not impossible to reconcile this image of the ‘washed up’ celeb with that goody-goody wallflower Dee presents to us in Gidget as Francie Lawrence; the apple of her parents’ eye - the ever-understanding Dorothy (Mary LaRoche) and easily flustered, Russell (Arthur O’Connell). Dee is such an innocent here, decidedly wet behind the ears in the ways of amour (with the right boy, of course!) and just not able to wrap her head around the art of ‘man-chasing’. Remember, it is 1959. The best any girl can hope for is a man who will ‘take care of her’ (a phrase of varied interpretations).
Yet, how can our Gidg’ be sure it’s the right man? Mercifully, Gabrielle Upton’s screenplay gives Francie some options…well alright – two; the much older, Kahuna (a.k.a. Burt Vail, and played with affecting sweetness and charm by Cliff Robertson) and ‘Moondoggie’ (a.k.a. Jeffrey Matthews, less effectively realized by James Darren – physically, a knock-off of John Aston, with whom Dee had great chemistry in the aforementioned Minnelli picture). Alas, Dee and Darren never quite hit it off for at least two-thirds of this movie; his myopic exultation of Kahuna’s devil-may-care ‘beach bum’ lifestyle (that Jeff will unsuccessfully seek to emulate – if only for this one eventful summer) and Jeff’s equally as narrow-minded view Gidget is ‘a child’ rather than a girl of his temperament teetering on the cusp of womanhood, leaves our projected lovers at cross-purposes for far too long. It also leaves Gidget feeling frazzled. Today, we’d call it ‘sexual frustration’. One of the most winsome aspects of the picture is Dee’s potential to clear-cut through all the male preening going on around her. Thirty minutes into Gidget, Dee’s tomboy already knows Moondoggie is the only fellow for her. It will take him until seven minutes before the final fade out to come to a similar epiphany. Somewhere between truth and romance we get humorous vignettes devoted either to homespun mother/daughter advice or some truly laughable blue-screen inserts of our tomboyish Gidg’ assimilating as ‘just one of the boys’ as she takes up and masters the leisurely ‘all-male’ pursuit of surfing.
Miraculously, it’s her pert and pint-sized self-reflection that proves the catalyst for so much change; Kahuna, protective of his charge – old enough to drive daddy’s Caddy but hopelessly lacking the social wherewithal to acknowledge an obvious – and even more unwanted, pass made by another member of the troop - ‘Lover Boy’ (Tom Laughlin). Gidget may not know her way around raging hormones, but she certainly has her way with these guys. Kahuna’s boys begin by reluctantly acknowledging her presence as a minor nuisance; then, as their mascot, and finally, as the right girl at the right time, primed for the picking – if only harvest time did not involve so many anxious farmhands in search of this one vine-ripened tomato. I have read several feminist treatises, citing Gidget as a catalyst for the dawning of a new cinematic representation of the all-American woman. Oh, please…let’s not go overboard! Dee’s bright-eyed and book-read babe in the woods is refreshingly not ‘with it’. Were that she could figure out the machinations to mimic her enterprising cohorts I have no doubt she would succumb and succeed in turning on the facet and the charm in tandem to achieve that holiest of holy ‘primal objectives’ for the fifties female: to land a quality hunk of man-flesh. That Gidg’ goes about it all wrong, or rather backwards and sideways (and still manages to hook the biggest catch of the day) is undeniably the crux of this movie’s time-capsule/fairy tale lure; also, its’ foregone conclusion.
After a bouncy main title, we settle in on a day in the life of our Frances Lawrence; a close-up of a decidedly juvenile one-piece bathing suit drying on the clothes line, dissolving to a shot of Frances, all of seventeen and lamenting to a crop-haired Betty Louis (Sue George) she is quite hopeless when it comes to attracting the opposite sex. Frances’ gal pals, Mary Lou (Jo Morrow), Nan (Yvonne Craig) and Patti (Patti Kane) all want to troll the beaches for available red-blooded men. Alas, Frances has yet to feel the hormonal twinge. Despite her father’s best-laid plans to inveigle Frances with Jeffrey Matthews, the son of a business associate, she has other ideas about how best to spend her summer holidays.  Arriving at the beach, the girls are immediately attracted to a group of shirtless, tanned fellas lying around a makeshift hut, waxing their surfboards. But even their more obvious effects fail to catch on. Nevertheless, Frances meets Kahuna and Moondoggie, becoming fascinated by the surfboard. Frances begs Russell to loan her $25 for a used board. Contented their daughter’s interests are aligned with ‘some nice boys’ she has met at the beach, Dorothy convinces Russ to let his little girl have the money.
While Kahuna and the other fellas are impressed by Frances’ resolve to partake of their male-dominated past time, Moondoggie finds virtually nothing redeemable about Gidg’. The boys unofficially take Frances for their mascot and nickname her ‘Gidget’, a portmanteau word derived from 'girl' and 'midget'. Unable to see this as a playful putdown, Gidget believes she has made inroads to a likely détente with Moondoggie. Briefly, Gidget becomes enamored with Kahuna; a Korean War vet twice her the age who has since written off the rules of what society expects of him to become a full-time beach bum. Moondoggie admires Kahuna so much he has decided to delay his own college plans in the fall to accompany his mentor on a freighter bound for Peru at summer’s end.  Of all the boys, Kahuna genuinely enjoys Gidget’s company. Without prying into his affairs, she sincerely questions whether if he knew then what he knows now he would still make the same lifestyle choices…uh…mistakes. It takes some time for those words to sink in, but sometime later, Kahuna takes Gidget’s philosophy to heart, electing to rejoin the human race by getting a real job and hang up his wanderer’s shoes.
Meanwhile, desperate to fit in with the guys – and one in particular – Frances lies to everyone about securing some premium steaks and refreshments for the planned ‘end of summer’ luau. Gidget’s rise to prominence as a ‘surfer girl’ is also delayed when, after being initiated by the fellas, repeatedly dunked in a tangle of kelp, she nearly drowns, developing an acute case of tonsillitis that leaves her bedridden for weeks. Not one to waste any time, Gidg’ practices her surfing technique by balancing her board across her bed. Fully recuperated, she takes to the waves with the boys, impressing even Kahuna and Moondoggie with her impeccable balance. At every attempt to catch Moondoggie’s eye, Gidget’s plans turn either sour or moot. Moondoggie isn’t interested in her. Everyone – even Kahuna – can see that. So Gidget hires one of the other surfers to play the part of her date for the luau. Too bad this plan backfires when the date passes off his sworn duty on Moondoggie, who still has no idea he is the object of Gidget’s affections. Lying to Moondoggie she is out to impress Kahuna instead, Moondoggie and Gidg’ remain at odds until he implies she is just a child, much too young to be interested in a man of Kahuna’s years. Storming off in her convertible, Gidget pursues Kahuna to a nearby ‘love shack’ he has borrowed for the evening from a friend.
Meanwhile, having discovered their daughter’s stormy alliance may not play out in Gidget’s best interests, Dorothy and Russell elect to go see exactly what is happening down at the beach. They arrive too late to find Gidget but are informed by another surfer of the ‘love shack’ and Gidget’s departure to chase after Kahuna. Well ahead of the game, Gidget arrives at the love shack and valiantly pitches herself to be ‘taken advantage of’ without actually knowing what this means. Kahuna is willing to oblige…up to a point. But even he can see Gidget does not really mean what she is saying. As a noble gesture, he sends her away. Too bad a nosy neighbor (Cheerio Meredith) has been all too eager to telephone the police. Now, Moondoggie turns up, demanding to know from Kahuna what has transpired at the shack. Before he can answer for his actions (or lack thereof), Kahuna and Moondoggie get into a brawl. The police break things up. Next, they find Gidget standing by her car down the road. She has suffered a flat tire. Unable to show proof of her license or registration for the family car, Gidget is taken by the officers to the station house. She is humiliated to find Dorothy and Russell already there, desperate for information on her whereabouts. Russell makes both the police and his family a promise: nothing like this will ever happen again. Dorothy reminds her daughter of grandma’s old saying, “A good woman brings out the best in every man.”
In an attempt to realign his daughter’s discernment between nice guys and bums, the next day Russell arranges for Gidget to meet Jeffrey Matthews, the son of his business associate. Both she and Jeff are startled to realize they already know each other much too well. You see, Jeff is Moondoggie! Not wanting to upset her parents any further, Gidget agrees to go on a date with him. Despite her linger affections for Jeff, almost immediately the two begin to quarrel as he drives back to the beach for, as he puts it, ‘one last (nostalgic) look around the place’. The couple discover Kahuna dismantling his makeshift beach shack. Ironically, he too has decided being a beach bum is no way to live. Having accepted a job as a flyer for a local airline, Kahuna and Moondoggie part as friends. Gidget and Moondoggie embrace. He offers her his fraternity pin – the ultimate fifties pledge of long-distance fidelity - while he is away at school. Gidget is over the moon with joy. Her dreams have come true – at least, for the time being.
Gidget takes some time to get going, but once it does its spirit of youthful optimism is as irresistible as ever. Watching Dee’s book-read but clumsy young Miss put herself through the grueling paces of an intellectualized determination to solve a problem where the heart should be leading the way instead, performing ‘breast-enhancement’ exercises in the hopes of amplifying her cleavage before the luau, leaves a palpable sincerity to linger about the hopefulness as well as the helplessness of young people desperate to become adults. But ‘mama’ was right. Being young is the best part of life, filled with new discoveries about one’s self, friendship and love affairs meant to last a lifetime – if only as lingering memories, neatly tucked into the faded pages of a yearbook or old Christmas card. I’ll admit this much; with its summer-themed festivities, releasing a Blu-ray of Gidget just before the pending Christmas holidays seems rather idiotic, or just poor timing to capitalize on its oodles of charm. Whatever the season, Gidget’s passion for life proves the magic elixir to warm our hearts. Sandra Dee was not a great actress. She was, however, a fairly fetching presence on the screen, able to be genuine and play solid comedy. Herein she illustrates not only the potential, but the emotional/mental resources to have achieved far better in a career cut short by inner demons and the inevitable sad decline of her screen popularity by the late 1960’s as she too grew into womanhood, leaving naiveté, along with those school girl days far behind.
In Columbia’s subsequent sequels, Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963), a more mature Gidg’ would be fleshed out by Deborah Walley and Cindy Carol respectively – neither able to recreate Sandra Dee’s bushy-tailed buoyancy. Gidget may not be high art, but it hardly matters. It is a movie to remind of a simpler time in that fictionally woven tapestry of Americana; when to be a virgin was hardly taboo, young love did not necessarily equate to leaving your knickers in a ball on the backseat of someone else’s car, and the prospect of finding true love the first time around – even while in high school, contained a sincere promise made through due diligence to find happiness on one’s own terms; free love, diaphragms, STD’s, and, the pill be damned! We don’t make movies like Gidget today, not even as retro-fitted homage, mainly because our present age has vulgarized the fragility of youth all out of proportion. In music, movies, TV programs and ads promoting hyper-sexualization as ‘the cultural norm’; we live in a pop culture where if you haven’t lost your virginity by sixteen and traded up a partner or two in the interim you might just as well consider yourself washed up. The movies have since confused finding love with getting laid, or rather, made it appear as though the latter is the only gateway to discovering the former. Refreshingly, our Gidget feels the same way – although, she equates ‘making it with a boy’ to friendly hand-holding, a tender kiss on the lips, and storybook daydreams of marrying to start a family. So, the end game really has not changed since 1959. Regrettably, the approach has. So, to paraphrase: “If you’re still in doubt about angels being real. I can arrange to change any doubts you feel. Wait'll you see this Gidget… you'll want her for your Valentine. You're gonna say she's all that you adore. Step right this way. Our Gidg is spoken for. You're gonna find, this Gidget is simply divine!”
Gidget arrives on Blu-ray via Twilight Time. Basically, another quality release from Sony, cribbing from restored and remastered elements in their archive a la Grover Crisp and his minions, who implicitly understand only one route to deep catalog releases from their Columbia Studios’ archives: polished with class and dedication to every last detail. We readily applaud Mr. Crisp and Sony on this blog. Once again, the kudos and accolades are well worth it. Gidget was shot in Cinemascope and ColumbiaColor – the studio-sanctioned derivation of Eastmancolor. Neither is a great process; ‘scope’s peripheral warping of the image wed to muddier than anticipated hues of this monopack color negative. The image can hardly hold a candle to Technicolor or Technirama. Less expensive though, folks; and, in the cost-cutting fifties, keeping the budget in check oft’ meant more than maintaining an overall integrity to any print master for generations that…let’s face it… were still three decades removed from the home video revolution. Movies then, as movies now, were made as disposable mass market entertainment. Unlike now however, then, conservation/preservation (even basic longevity of the product itself) was not considered a priority. Once a movie had its first run theatrically it was rarely shown in its entirety – perhaps, on late night TV, or unless it proved a blockbuster rife for multiple reissues.
Gidget in 1080p looks very nice indeed. There is some marginal fading and the image can occasionally look thick rather than refined. But this is Cinemascope and Eastmancolor, folks; not the fault of this meticulous remastering effort. Age-related artifacts have been completely eradicated. There’s a patina of naturally realized film grain too. Honestly, nothing to complain about here. The DTS audio is 1.0 mono. I am uncertain if Gidget was originally recorded in 4 or 6 track-stereo. Certainly, ‘scope’ was capable of stereo, though a good many original sound mixes were gassed and reused back in the day, leaving only mono mixes behind. Oh well, and again, it is what it is – nicely balanced with clean, crisp dialogue and no strident spots. We also get the score and three songs in stereo, isolated on a separate track. We love Twilight Time for including classic film scores as a supplement when rights permit, although I would sincerely champion all future TT releases of musicals like Doctor Dolittle include not only orchestrations but also vocal tracks. But I digress. Gidget is a charmer on Blu-ray. If you are still in doubt about angels being real, get this one today and be very glad you did. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, December 10, 2017

DOC HOLLYWOOD: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1991) Warner Archive

Michael J. Fox rounded out a phenomenal decade of film and television work with director, Michael Caton-Jones’ Doc Hollywood (1991); exactly the sort of ‘fish out of water’ feel good for which Fox’s unpretentious disposition seems tailor-made. America today is so grotesquely polarized it is hard – if not wholly impossible – to imagine a lithe comedy like Doc Hollywood ever having been green lit by a major studio; so effortless in its satire and then ‘contemporary’ slant on the traditional comedy of manners, with a bit of screwball lightly peppered in for good measure.  Unexpectedly poignant, Doc Hollywood is populated by enough Southern caricatures to make the likes of Tennessee Williams blush. It’s also is the last of Fox’s big screen 'crowd pleasers' to showcase the actor’s natural charisma. At its core, Doc Hollywood remains a Hollywood-zed fairy tale about finding one’s place in the world; not necessarily the same as making plans for the place one might have imagined to be in the next five to ten years. In the same year Fox learned he had Parkinson’s Disease (and, rather fatefully was told by doctors he had maybe ten good years of work left in him), he gives one of his most heartfelt and engaging performances as D.C. hot shot surgeon, Benjamin Stone. The character’s transformation from arrogant prick, with daydreams of wallowing in the superficial glam-bam of La La Land as plastic surgeon extraordinaire to the stars, is derailed when Stone’s cocky entitlement lands him in very hot water with the local magistrate, Judge Evans (Roberts Blossom). Forced to remain for 32 hours in the Southern backwater of Grady, South Carolina - a town with its share of coots, carnies and careworn curmudgeons - Ben elects to make the best of his situation. It won’t be easy. Nurse Packer’s (Eyde Byrde) first impressions of him are as an arrogant piece of work in need of being knocked down a few pegs. She may be right.
Ah, but there’s good people in Grady too; Mayor Nick Nicholson (David Ogden Stiers at his most enchantingly elfin) for one; his daughter, Nancy Lee (Bridget Fonda) – something of the town tart with the proverbial heart of gold for another. We also get Kyle (Time Winter) and Mary Owens (K.T. Vogt) who, despite being perpetually pregnant, only come to the hospital to have their mail read. Homespun summer magic unearthed too by the trio of cameos from Frances Sternhagen, Helen Martin and Amzie Strickland; Grady’s ‘welcoming committee’ – as Lillian, Maddie and Violet, respectively. And then there are Mel Winkler and William Cowart as Melvin the Mechanic and Lane, his German-speaking assistant (just think of them as the grease monkey’s Statler and Waldorf in this unkempt back of beyond). Also, Macon McCalman, as Aubrey Draper, part of Grady’s town counsel and a sort of effete stand-in for Tennessee Williams who takes a marginal – if distant – fancy to our Ben.  Last but not least, we get the 'as ever' unenlightened Insurance salesman, Hank Gordon (brilliantly conceived by Woody Harrelson).
It’s a hell of a cast, capped off by an affecting cameo from George Hamilton, as pony-tailed and perpetually tanned Doctor Halberstrom, whose Los Angeles’ clinic rams as many cash cows through its front door as he can. Aside: I have known such physicians in my time, devoted to their check books in a bottomless pursuit for this gold-plated lifestyle, seeing patients as necessary slabs of meat to furnish another vacation or stately abode in the country, but with precious little in the way of bedside manner that does justice to their Hippocratic Oath taken in service to the community at large. I would be remiss, first, not to acknowledge there are a good many great doctors among this lot, but also to further point out Hamilton’s callous practitioner in Doc Hollywood represents a more common thread afflicting those practicing medicine today. Fox’s depiction of Ben Stone at the outset is well on his way to living down this sense of personal entitlement, lauding his experience over those who (let’s face it) only go to a doctor when they are in desperate need of guidance, advice and, most immediately, medicinal treatment or a cure for what ails them. Viewed from this vantage, literally crash-landing in Judge Evans’ backyard is more than a wake-up call for Ben. He can either revert to being a good doctor (a calling for which he has been trained) or escalate his already ballsy egotism to treat all patients as dollar signs: the fork in the road decided by a pair of wayward milk maids, toting their cows down a lonely back road; Ben, veering his Porsche roadster into Judge Evans’ newly painted white picket fence to avoid them. 
Doc Hollywood is an underrated film in Michael J. Fox’s body of work, coming, as it did, at the tail end of both the fun-filled 1980’s (in hindsight, a decade perfectly suited to Fox’s particular brand of frenzied comedic unease), and, his meteoric reign as one of the most beloved and hardest working actors in Tinsel Town. Appearing in two undistinguished pictures at the beginning of the eighties, Fox landed a pair of plum roles destined to secure his place in movie-land history: the first, as uptight Republican, Alex P. Keaton in the wildly popular TV sit-com, Family Ties (1982-89); the second, by default after first hire, Eric Stoltz proved a disappointment to director, Robert Zemeckis in Back to the Future (1985). It isn’t overstating the obvious to suggest there was no greater ‘teen’ heartthrob throughout the eighties than Michael J. Fox, despite already being 25 years old in 1985. Fox’s boyish good looks carried the illusion he was much younger. But it was his acting chops that secured lasting popularity on both the big and small screens.  Fox rode this wave in popularity through several otherwise disposable entertainments like Teen Wolf (1985) and The Secret of My Success (1987). To both movies he brought an intangible sense of proportion, balancing clean-cut good humor with the most fanciful plots.
Interestingly, Doc Hollywood isn’t quite as silly as it sounds. It’s also not nearly so serious as Fox’s two irrefutable flops: Bright Lights, Big City (1988), where he played a New York magazine fact-checker whose life spirals out of control on booze and drugs, and, Casualties of War (1989), where he proved wholly unconvincing as a vet in a Vietnam war drama co-starring heavy-hitter, Sean Penn. Ironically too, and strictly by the numbers, Fox’s biggest hit after the Back to the Future film franchise was The Secret of My Success; at $110 million, a far cry from the original Back to the Future’s whopping $381.1 million intake. Doc Hollywood ought to have been another world-wide bell ringer. Alas, its $54,830,779 was something of a letdown and perhaps a sign Fox’s box-office drawing power was on the wane; confirmed when only one of his next three pictures – the leaden comedy, Life with Mickey (1993) actually managed to turn a small profit. A great rom/com is only as good as its love interest. Doc Hollywood’s ingenue is Julie Warner, perfectly cast as forthright and no-nonsense ambulance driver, Vialula ‘Lou’. Daring for an actress just starting out, Warner’s ‘cute meet’ with Ben takes place near the lake facing the cabin Mayor Nicholson has picked out for Ben’s residence; Warner, emerging ‘perky bosom’ and ‘bushy’ from the frigid waters, astonishing both Ben and the audience with her overt confidence to appear au naturel. Clumsily, Ben offers Lou his blanket. She tells him if he really is a doctor she does not have anything he has not seen many times before. “You can blink now,” she adds, before getting dressed. It’s a hell of an entrance, book-ended by a performance where Warner pulls no punches and keeps the usually boastful Ben feeling off-kilter and refreshingly humble; also, from making a complete ass of himself after he discovers she is a divorcee with a four-year-old daughter, Emma (Amanda Junette Donatelli).
Doc Hollywood is politely entrancing and far more frank about the platitudes and pitfalls afflicting male/female romantic couplings. Director, Caton-Jones keeps the checks and balances of the anticipated ‘folly, frolic, fun and games’ of courtship balanced in tandem with the underlying current of seriousness, anchored to a real dilemma brewing in Ben’s heart. How can he justify accepting the $35,000 annual salary Mayor Nicholson and the town council are offering him to stay in Grady with the potential for millions, probably earned in a single year, performing unnecessary nips and tucks on L.A.’s uber-rich and sophisticated? The answer, of course, is that quality of life has more to do with the happiness to be quietly unearthed by a community genuinely respectful and in need of his medical talents. Indeed, Grady’s present practitioner, Dr. Hogue (Barnard Hughes) is a grumpy country doctor, his ‘home remedies’ method clashing with Ben’s more recent and up-to-date reliance on modern medicines. The shortcomings of both approaches to medicine are illustrated in Doc Hollywood; Ben, narrowly avoiding open-heart surgery after a misdiagnosis on a six-year-old with an acute case of indigestion, and Hogue, after suffering a major heart attack he stubbornly insists is only angina, has his life saved by Ben’s quick thinking.
Doc Hollywood begins with a glimpse into Dr. Benjamin Stone’s internship since graduating medical school. A promising surgeon working in Washington, D.C., Stone has had his share of over-crowded emergency rooms. Fellow practitioner, Dr. Tommy Shulman (Barry Sobel) thinks Ben is a schmuck, taking the easy way out of a promising career to perform pointless plastic surgeries on the rich. Ben attempts to justify his decision by suggesting the work he intends to pioneer in L.A. will make it possible to advance the art for those desperately in need of reconstructive surgery. Neither Tommy nor Ben actually believe this. But to Ben, it makes no difference. Why work hard when one can just as easily work fast and get paid far more handsomely for it? After all, he has a $70,000 student loan to pay off. On his last day, Ben realizes none of his colleagues care enough to even say good-bye. So, good riddance. Who needs them? A pity, Ben is about to discover everybody needs someone sometimes. While driving his Porsche Speedster, Ben encounters heavy construction and elects to take a shortcut off the main highway. He gets lost in the proverbial boondocks, swerving to miss two cows and a pair of milk maids crossing the road. Momentarily losing control and taking out a considerable breadth of newly painted white picket fence, Ben brings his vehicle to a not so successful stop in the middle of Judge Evans’ front yard. More angered about the state of his car than the fence, Ben nevertheless offers to have his insurance company pay for the damages.
Instead, Judge Evans orders Ben to perform 32 hrs. of community service in his town of Grady, South Carolina.  Mayor Nicholson is elated, hoping Ben will decide to remain as a permanent resident. But Nurse Packer is unimpressed by Ben’s arrival; asking to see ‘some I.D.’ and further humbling him by using a punch clock to register the hours he has put towards his sentence. Ben invests himself in his work and is amused by the various patients he gets; a woman who suggests she is seeing spots when, in fact, she merely needs to have her glasses cleaned; a fisherman with a hook stuck through his thumb, and, an elderly farmer requiring a mere stitch for a superficial cut on his toe. He also meets the Owens – Kyle and Mary; an illiterate couple who come so Ben can read Mary’s sister’s correspondences depicting several lurid relationships in their extended family. Ben is in for a reckoning when he misdiagnoses a young boy with a grave heart condition. In actuality, the boy has chewed his father’s tobacco and been given too much bismuth sub nitrate as an antacid, causing his skin to turn blue. Dr. Aurelius Hogue is carpet-hauled by Ben for prescribing Coca-Cola to neutralize the effect. But Hogue, who is quite right, turns the tables on Ben, admonishing his irresponsible ‘big city’ ways that might have resulted in unnecessary and expensive surgery.
Ben learns from the local mechanics, Melvin and Lane, his vintage car needs a rare part to be repaired. Problem: the vendor does not take credit and Ben has no money. Melvin offers to take a pig given to Ben in trade for his medical services off his hands for the part to fix Ben’s car. Alas, Melvin then sends the pig to the butcher to be slaughtered. Ben desperately tries to get Lou to take an interest in him and is rather startled to discover she was once married to an exotic dancer with whom she has a daughter, Emma. Meanwhile, the Mayor’s daughter and town flirt, Nancy Lee tries to convince Ben to take her with him when he is ready to leave Grady. As if this were not enough of a complication, the local Insurance salesman, Hank Gordon informs Ben it is ‘hands off’ where Lou is concerned.  Hank plans to marry her…someday. Realizing Lou has zero interest in him as a ‘big shot’ from the big city, Ben confesses he is also originally from a very small town in rural Indiana. She is touched by his candor. Alas, fate intervenes again. Dr. Hogue suffers a heart attack. Thanks to Ben’s quick thinking and skills as a doctor, Hogue’s life is spared. Upon his recovery, Hogue entertains his closest friends in his hospital room. But Ben denies Hogue the luxuries of their well-intended fatty feast, dumping most of the food into the garbage and reminding Hogue it was his expertise that saved his life.
Grady marks its annual ‘Squash Festival’ with a parade, midway and fireworks. Ben meets up with Lou and Hank but is quite unsuccessful at sharing anything more than a dance with her. However, some time later while strolling home on the dark backroad, Ben encounters Lou driving her ambulance. She offers to drive him to the lake where she intends they should consummate their brief affair, knowing well Ben still intends to leave town, especially since Judge Evans, grateful for Ben saving Hogue’s life, has had a change of heart and commuted the rest of his sentence. Ben can leave town any time he wants. Alas, once at the lake, Ben suffers an attack of conscience. He will not become another man in Lou’s life she has to regret. Returning to his lakeside lodge to pack, Ben finds Hank awaiting his return. Expecting a fight, Ben is startled when Hank reasons Ben is not selfless enough to share all of his life with Lou. And Ben begrudgingly agrees. Thus, in the dead of night he packs his kit, reclaims his car from Melvin’s garage and plans to make his escape from Grady before anyone is the wiser. Fate, again, has another purpose in store. Ben finds Kyle and Mary Owens stalled by the side of the road. Mary is about to give birth. So, Ben pulls off to attend to Mary, just as the ‘packed up’ carnival rides from the festival are being trucked down the open road. A sleepy driver plows into Ben’s Porsche, evaporating all hope for a discreet getaway.
The next morning, realizing the inevitable cannot be delayed any longer, Lou has Mayor Nicholson get a collection together. The town buys Ben a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles; Nicholson providing him with a police escort to the airport. Lou tearfully announces she intends to marry Hank and settle down before rushing off into the crowd. Ben leaves Grady and we flash forward to his arrival for the much-anticipated interview on the West Coast with Dr. Halberstrom. Anxious to begin anew on his fast track to success, Ben is haunted by memories of the good people in Grady and, particularly, of Lou. He soon tires of L.A.’s superficiality. Hence, when Halberstrom’s secretary informs Ben a newly arrived woman with ‘a heavy Southern accent’, is eager to meet him at one of the upscale cafés, Ben mistakenly assumes Lou has come to L.A. to be with him. Instead, he finds both Nancy Lee and Hank, newly arrived in his restored Porsche. Hank informs Ben he has decided to relocate his insurance practice to L.A. Better clientele. Hank has turned down Lou’s proposal of marriage. Hank is now with Nancy Lee…well, sort of. Realizing what an epic mistake he has made Ben returns to Grady, reclaims the pet pig meant for the slaughter house and turns up on the steps of the hospital, eager to get Lou back. After some awkward badinage, she takes him back.
Doc Hollywood bounces along on its bucolic un-self-consciousness and country-bumpkin witticisms.  It’s predictable, but precisely the sort of picture Frank Capra in his prime would have championed, its plot bested by the conviction both Michael J. Fox and Julie Warner lend to their characters. These are not kismet sweethearts, per say, but clumsily feuding equals, despite their disparate life’s pursuits. The fact ‘Lou’ is a mother is given short shrift in Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, Daniel Pyne’s shoot-from-the-hip screenplay, based on Laurian Leggett’s adaptation of M.D. Neil B. Shulman’s novel. Doc Hollywood is often mis-referenced as ‘breezy’ – code for just another ‘fluff piece’ of feather-weight comedy. But actually, the romantic complications invested in Doc Hollywood burrow much deeper into the wounded, shared reticence of two basically smart people, destined to find their own level of comfort in the unlikeliest of situations. A clever movie need not be original to work. We have seen a lot of Doc Hollywood’s in our time, mostly because Hollywood itself enjoys taking humorous stabs at the cornfed Bible belt. Yet, herein, these Southern caricatures have not been misplaced as clumsy oafs or good-time Charlies with a drawl. Everything about Doc Hollywood in fact, feels genuine, smart and sexy with good solid character parts for all concerned. It works and the results are a great little movie to pull out any time you need a pick-me-up or a smile.
Doc Hollywood’s arrival on Blu-ray in a new 2K scan via the Warner Archive is a blessing. The picture was shot by the great Michael Chapman whose credits include the highly stylized palettes of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. It’s a different kind of artfulness he brings to Doc Hollywood, inconspicuous and unassuming, capturing the heavy-heat, lazy atmosphere of this nearly forgotten pocket of the South. Employing an interpositive curated at MPI’s remastering facility at Warner Bros., this Blu-ray looks wonderful and light years ahead of the tired ole pan-and-scan DVD we have suffered through for decades. Applying due diligence, the image has been cleaned up and color balanced, revealing a gorgeous film-like presentation that is crisp and detailed with a light smattering of film grain looking very indigenous to its source. A few shots look marginally soft, but otherwise there is nothing to complain about here. The new 2.0 DTS audio is culled from a Dolby magnetic master that, when decoded, expands to create a pleasantly atmospheric blend in the surround channels, with frontal sounding dialogue and some competently rendered SFX.  One regret: no extras, save a careworn theatrical trailer. Oh well, we can’t have everything. Bottom line: Doc Hollywood should warm the heart with its sincerity. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)