Wednesday, May 2, 2018

RUBY GENTRY: Blu-ray (Selznick, 1952) Kino Lorber

In hindsight, the careers of Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick never measured up to either’s potential; Selznick’s blinding professionalism as the producer of arguably the greatest movie ever made, Gone with the Wind (1939) and Jones’ spellbinding talent on display in her Oscar-winning debut in 2oth Century-Fox’s The Song of Bernadette (1943) failing the intrinsic arithmetic to become a Hollywood ‘titan couple’ of their generation.  Perhaps it was the ill-footing of their chance ‘cute meet’ – a whirlwind romance built upon the shaky foundation of two ruined marriages; Selznick, divorcing Irene Mayer (daughter of MGM’s raja, L.B.) and Jones, ending her rocky union to actor, Robert Walker – who drank himself into an early grave, possibly, to forget her. It is ironic too, for Selznick and Jones certainly possessed the tools to succeed. Yet somehow, each squandered their advantage in a series of misfired collaborations; the most overwrought of the lot – 1947’s Duel in the Sun, the most inexplicably mangled, 1948’s supernatural potboiler, Portrait of Jennie. Today, each of these aforementioned films has their following and fascination, if only to ferment a reflection of their bizarre inability to completely tap into the ‘master and mate’ relationship and light up the screen with truly memorable movies.
Director King Vidor’s Ruby Gentry (1952) is by no means the slightest of Selznick’s sinking endeavors to will that spark of stardom into Jones’ sagging career. In hindsight, alas, it did little to promote it. Cribbing from an original screenplay by Arthur Fitz-Richard and Silvia Richards, Ruby Gentry is a queer one indeed; the titular anti-heroine of the title bearing much resemblance to Pearl Chavez (the half-breed harlot Jones had played in Duel in the Sun); the swampy southern Gothic and wormwood setting, a little too self-indulgently aping the creative genius of playwright, Tennessee Williams, although lacking Williams’ finesse and structure to successfully tell the tale of a vindictive, scorned, and ultimately demoralized/demonized ‘bad’ woman, more the victim of her caste than any willful determination to wreck her own chances at happiness. Ruby Gentry would be something of a barn-burner/bodice-ripper if it did not so quickly and completely degenerate into an episodic flimflam with mere flashes of the incendiary and blazing passion our Ruby (Jones, poured into form-fitting jeans and tight tops showing off her heavily padded projectile bosoms) supposedly feels for hulking entrepreneur, Boake Tackman (broad-shouldered Charlton Heston).
Boake’s family used to have status. In the addlepated mindset of this inbred North Carolina community, the past is enough to put Boake ahead of Ruby. The ‘good’ citizens of Braddock are, in fact, contemptibly bigoted; their ‘betters’ (in name only) not above slumming in the swampy backwoods bungalow of Ruby’s pa, Jud Corey (Tom Tully) for a weekend’s hunting excursion. This crowded cabin is also home to Ruby’s ma (Myra Marsh) and her Bible-spouting hypocrite of a brother, Jewel (James Anderson). Ruby wants out of this small-minded existence. Moreover, she has caught the eye of some of Braddock’s ‘finer’ citizens including millionaire/businessman, Jim Gentry (Karl Malden) and newly arrived ‘Yankee’ doctor, Saul Manfred (Barney Phillips).  Saul could be good for Ruby. After all, he is the only one who sees beyond her obvious bumpkin beauty and is willing to overlook her unfortunate accident of being born poor. The picture’s strengths are its cast that also includes Josephine Hutchinson as Jim’s ailing wife, Letitia; Phyllis Avery as the socialite, Tracy McAuliffe, who wins the coin toss (because she has more ‘coin’ and ‘culture’ than Ruby), wedding, bedding, but ultimately losing Boake to Ruby; Charles Cane as Tracy’s pappy/publisher, Cullen McAuliffe, and, Herbert Heyes as Boake’s father, Judge Tackman (who finagles the marriage of Boake to Tracy but cannot prevent his son from falling under Ruby’s spell again and again). The sweat and stench of the swamp that Boake professes to despise are too powerful an elixir for him to remain contented with Tracy for very long.
One of the most disheartening aspects of the picture is how quickly it dispatches with plot points it has taken the time to properly setup for a big payoff that never comes. And so, we get Tracy’s introduction as the moneyed maven, Avery, disappearing from view shortly thereafter, only to resurface unhappy and sulking as she observes her newlywed husband squiring another newlywed, Mrs. Gentry around the patio dance floor at the local country club as an increasingly resentful Jim looks on in disgust. Off camera, Jim tries to bust Boake in the chops. Perhaps, it’s better Vidor never allows us to witness this confrontation. Picturing Malden’s balding budgie pitted against Heston’s handsome and broad-shouldered virility is like trying to find the nugget of wisdom in a Pekinese attacking a Great Dane. It’s no wonder we discover Jim a short while later brooding on a park bench, his white tuxedo slightly scuffed, a bruise inflicted by Boake discoloring his cheek. No amount of ice will bring down the swelling of Jim’s bitter contempt. But only a scene or two later, he seems to have regained his composure, enough to share an intimate afternoon with his wife aboard their yacht; a reconciliation cut tragically short when a strong gust of wind loosens the sail to knock Jim unconscious into the murky surf from which his body is never recovered.
Too bad too much of the sin, sex and other salacious tidbits that might have made for some high-stakes drama in Ruby Gentry take place off camera. I suspect the film’s budget had something to do with these absences, although the Production Code probably caboshed the vague implication Boake later rapes Ruby. At $525,000, there was likely no extra cash to illustrate the lavishness of Boake’s wedding to Tracy or Ruby’s New York nuptials to Jim, for that matter. We get brief inserts of the exteriors of churches set to a voice-over narration instead. We also skip past the funeral and inquest that might have cleared Ruby’s name of the false accusation she murdered Jim aboard their yacht and dumped his body in the ocean to conceal the crime. The last act of this romantic tragedy is slavishly devoted to Ruby’s ruthless revenge against all those who have misjudged her ‘mostly’ honorable intentions; calling in her late husband’s markers to shut down the local newspaper and severely cripple several of the prominent citizenry’s businesses run by men loyal to Jim, but who utterly despised her. Callously, Ruby emasculates Boake’s ambitious land reclamation project by deliberately turning off the pumps that have kept the sea water from flooding his newly cultivated crops, pleasurably observing with a hardened heart as all his efforts are quietly consumed by the swampy deluge.  
King Vidor, whose meteoric film career never fully recovered after the introduction of ‘sound’ in cinema, was a Selznick favorite. But he illustrates a complete inability herein to draw cohesion from these sordid details, falling back on a voice-over narration (provided by Barney Phillips) to link together these disjointed and thoroughly episodic passages of time. Herein, both Vidor and Selznick have committed a cardinal sin, ostensibly forgetting that movies – at least, the good ones – are always more about ‘show’ than ‘tell’. Ruby Gentry does not suffer from the verbal diarrhea that oft’ afflicted vintage ‘50’s films but, in the skilled hands of a director like Joseph L. Mankiewicz, could become as lyrical and affecting as grand opera. Even so, the Fitz-Richard/Richards screenplay suffers from a terrible ennui in its dialogue exchanges, affording the characters very little opportunity to say anything that goes beyond the ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ perfunctory nature of merely getting the job done. The characters connect the dots without ever allowing the audience into their innermost thought processes. Is Ruby a wanton woman? Well, not entirely. That is, she certainly doesn’t start out with this less than virtuous ambition. She’s just hot for Boake. And, she illustrates remarkable restraint even here, teasing her would-be lover in the darkness with a flashlight, then later digging her claws into his cheek at the dinner table, merely to garner his attentions away from the manly discussions taking place that are pertinent to his future.
But the genuine oddity of the piece is Jewel Corey; a gaunt James Anderson, spewing prophetic pseudo-Biblical bile to constantly berate our Ruby and rather transparently foreshadow her fate, goading her to persist, mostly out of spite, in pursuit of the only man she has ever loved – the one, decidedly not in love with her, although he would rather insincerely like to continue to ‘see’ her from time to time, even after he has married the Anglo-Saxon Tracy for her family’s wealth and prosperity. Neither Boake nor Ruby are beautiful people, and perhaps this is the only point to be gleaned from the story; that, two-of-a-kind from the alley cat sect are doomed to claw and tear one another’s hearts out. Curiously, this does not happen either. After a hinted rape, Ruby accompanies Boake on a hunting expedition into the swamp. Regrettably, the hunters become the hunted as Jewel is intent on making Ruby pay for her sins. And so, we get a rather idiotic showdown between Jewel and Boake, despite the fact neither man has a ‘beef’ with the other. Jewel murders Boake with his rifle before he is similarly assassinated by his own sister. The picture is book-ended by fleeting glimpses of a much older/embittered Ruby, inexplicably captaining a fishing trawler. So, with all of Jim’s money and this year’s fashions she still forwent glamor to become a smarmy sailor. Okay…
There are far too many queries left unanswered in Ruby Gentry to make it a stellar entertainment. Leaving clandestine moments to mystery and chance is one thing. But Ruby Gentry is a rather pedestrian affair of naïve love turned asunder by betrayal and disappointment. Melodrama has both its effectiveness and its place. But Ruby Gentry just seems to be going through the motions, dropping hints to a more epic romantic tragedy never to unfurl before our eyes. Ruby is a sultry gal from the bayou; Bouke, the very promise of a good name (if not entirely a good man) tarnished, and ultimately destroyed by his passion for someone not of his class. In the midst of this absent-minded inferno stumbles Jim – again, without much remorse for the invalid wife, conveniently to have left him a widower in hot pursuit of this ferial female, far less of his ilk and years. Vidor and Selznick’s patchwork plotting is woefully anemic to a fault and clumsily bent on extoling the smoldering sex appeal of Jennifer Jones – a quality, I duly confess, has always escaped my admiration.
Jones is superficially attractive – yes. However, the moment she speaks she debunks the myth of the proverbial sexpot. There is too much intelligence of a peculiarly unsettling ‘innocence’ to her real-life persona to make the art of the vamp convincing. We never believe her queasily sly ‘come hither’ glances either. Oh, what she might have become in the top echelons of Hollywood had Selznick left well enough alone and not endeavored to craft this alter ego he clearly perceived as part of his wife’s ‘charm’; the aforementioned brief and shining moment of Jones’ debut at Fox, and, to a far lesser extent, affecting transformation from boy-crazy adolescent to sadder-but-wiser widow in Selznick’s wartime masterpiece, Since You Went Away (1944) proving unequivocally, Jones had the chops to be a truly memorable star for the ages – that legacy unfulfilled because she continued to be typecast the vixen in thinly masked tripe like Ruby Gentry instead.
Ruby Gentry arrives on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber in yet another example of the middling quality being afforded the Selznick back catalog. Image crispness veers from promising refinement to fuzzily soft and detail-lacking with an inexplicable amplification of the film’s natural grain structure, not only from scene to scene but shot to shot. It’s as though half the picture was sourced from dupes/the other half, from an original camera negative.  I have read various reviews that trumpet the fact this hi-def presentation bests the tired old – and interlaced – DVD release from 2001. No kidding…it does. But is this really the barometer we should be using to assess Blu-ray quality in 2018? I don’t think so. The technology has come such a very long way since Blu-ray’s infancy there is no excuse (except obvious expense and time management) for ANY movie to look this average in hi-def. Age-related damage rears its ugly little head from time to time and, while not entirely distracting, is nevertheless present and accounted for when a little prudence and marginal clean-up would have sufficed for a far better video presentation. 

As certain ‘asset management’ companies have shown the feasibility in performing such work (somehow the Warner Archive and Sony Pictures have figured out a way to restore and remaster their catalog and distribute these hard-won efforts at a profit) it really makes no sense to accept anything less than even a basic effort to do right by older movies. Ruby Gentry’s 2.0 mono DTS is acceptable for this presentation. The only extra is a theatrical trailer, along with trailers for other movies starring Jennifer Jones that exhibit the same basic lack of care ascribed this title. Aside: can we just get some forward-thinking company to remaster Selznick’s Duel in the Sun without all that awful Technicolor misregistration?!? Dumb! Hopeless! Idiotic! There…I’ve cooled down. Bottom line: Ruby Gentry is a tepid little movie that attempts to teach a lesson – equating lust with death and despair and forewarning that any woman, brave enough to take on her own sexuality in an era where demureness would presumably be considered a virtue, is not in for a good time of it…even if a good time – briefly – is had by all.  This disc is average and that’s all. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
0

No comments: