August 04, 2020

The Tony Curtis Collection

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The Perfect Fulough
Blake Edwards - 1958

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The Great Imposter
Robert Mulligan - 1960

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40 Pounds of Trouble
Norman Jewison - 1962
KL Studio Classics BD Three-disc set

Usually, when I've covered blu-ray release sets, it's centered on a genre or filmmaker. What made me interested in this three disc set of films starring Tony Curtis is that the three films in question were all early works by directors who would become major hitmakers within a few years, all with films that became iconic. In terms of the star's career, all three films were made during the time Curtis was under contract to Universal for a second seven year period, but with the option to make films with other studios. It's generally the films Curtis made outside of Universal that have sustained the most interest over the past decades. But there is the simultaneous interest of seeing both how Curtis, especially after his Oscar nominated performance in The Defiant Ones, exercised power in working with directors who were also given the chance to establish their own respective styles that would be more apparent in future work.

The Perfect Furlough was one of four movies starring Curtis in 1958, a year that included Delmer Daves' Kings Go Forth, his only Oscar nominated performance in The Defiant Ones and a second film with then-wife Janet Leigh, The Vikings. Ms. Leigh also appeared in one movie without Curtis that year, a potboiler Universal hacked up and tossed in a ditch, Touch of Evil. Younger readers may not be aware that Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were the power movie star couple of the 1950s, making five films together as well as being major stars individually. The premise of Stanley Shapiro's script is that Curtis plays a womanizing soldier, one of 104 assigned to a remote base in the Arctic. After seven months of a year long assignment, the soldiers are finding their isolation difficult. Leigh plays the Army psychologist who comes up with the idea that the soldiers will find vicarious release through one soldier who is allowed a three week furlough. Egged by Curtis, the soldiers all describe their perfect furlough as spending three weeks in Paris with an Argentine bombshell actress, played here by an actual Argentine bombshell, Linda Crystal. Curtis finagles his way to winning a lottery, with the rest of the film taking place in a studio lot Paris. Much suspension of disbelief is needed not only for the plot, but the plot twists that take place.

What is of interest are the sight gags that would be re-worked later, primarily in the Pink Panther series. King Donovan appears as the hapless officer who breaks a pointer and walks into closed doors. One still funny bit involves a strategically placed bottle of champagne. Both Leigh and Crystal tumble into giant vats of wine. Edwards' visual style involves very little cross cutting between characters, keeping even his stars in two-shots and group shots within the CinemaScope frame. The film was the second of four films Curtis and Edwards made, followed the next year with Edwards' first major hit, Operation Petticoat, also at Universal.

The commentary track is most conversational between historians David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner that goes off in several tangents, although honestly, how could it not? The discussion covers the production of the film and its place in the careers of the primary talent, as well as placing it in the context of the era of production. While the commentary succeeds in being entertaining and mostly informative, I was astonished that of the several supporting players mentioned, nothing was said about Marcel Dalio, appearing here as the winemaker passing his wisdom of love to Curtis. To their credit, Del Valle and Joyner are honest about the film's weaknesses and those aspects that reflect the sexual attitudes of the time, as well as being observant about how the film works in anticipating some of the future films by Blake Edwards.

The Great Imposter was the second of two films Curtis made with Robert Mulligan, following The Rat Race, also from 1960. It was Mulligan's third feature and like The Rat Race essentially a commissioned work, though Mulligan had a major hand in casting of the supporting roles. This is a highly fictionalized story of a high school dropout, Fernando Demara, Jr., who through a reading of people and a photographic memory managed to take on a variety of identities and occupations, most infamously as a Canadian naval surgeon who completed nineteen successful surgeries on board a ship in battle off the South Korean coast. Demara was a celebrity at the time the film was made, profiled in Life magazine, and the subject of a best selling biography published in 1959. The film is lighter in tone than the biography, tailored more to Curtis' onscreen persona. The real Demara was also physically heavyset, unlike Curtis' lithe go-getter. Universal at this time was the most conservative of the big studios, but with Curtis demanding roles with greater dramatic range, there was some drama mixed in with the whimsy.

Although the film was well received at the time, I don't think it has aged as well. The Rat Race, dominated as it is by Garson Kanin's screenplay based on his ten year old play benefits from some on location shooting with Curtis and co-star Debbie Reynolds on the streets of New York City. Even though Mulligan was respected enough by his peers to get nominated for a Directors Guild Award, The Great Imposter lacks the vitality and sense of place of the earlier film. Where it works best as a warm-up for Mulligan's best films is an early scene of Demara's depression era childhood. In two years, Mulligan would make To Kill a Mockingbird. There are also The Other and Man in the Moon, among the better films. Kat Ellinger's commentary reviews how Mulligan was part of the generation of film directors who were trained in television dramas, often shown live at that time, who made their feature debuts in the late 1950s and early 60s. The Great Imposter was also noted for having several major names in supporting roles, notably Karl Malden as a friendly priest who provides some dramatic continuity. Others may delight in seeing the relatively unknown Frank Gorshin as a scheming convict whose constant villainous laugh anticipates his role as The Joker in the Batman TV series.

By the time one gets to 40 Pounds of Trouble, there is a noticeable inverse relationship between the quality of the films and the trajectory of the respective director's careers. Norman Jewison was hand-picked by Curtis following a television career of specials devoted primarily to musical performers, most notably Judy Garland. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther's summed up his opinion, "The trouble with 40 Pounds of Trouble is that it is just too hackneyed and dull." Time has not helped Jewison's feature debut, which hardly suggests that the director would be the recipient of three Oscar nominations for Best Director including Best Picture winner, In the Heat of the Night.

The film is an uncredited remake, the second, of the Shirley Temple film, Little Miss Marker, about a five year old girl left behind by her gambler father, who has temporarily left in order to pay off a debt. The source is a story by writer Damon Runyon, famed for his tales of gamblers, gangsters and show business types and assorted riff-raff in 1930s New York City. Runyon should be happy that his name is not on the credits for this film, an updated version that takes place mostly in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, with a frenetic chase taking place in Disneyland. There was a fourth version made, also with Curtis, this time supporting his former acting school colleague Walter Matthau.

While Crowthers rightly complained about the weak screenplay, he was oblivious to Jewison's hand in the visuals. In retrospect, it would seem like Jewison was hoping to use as many ideas about making the film as cinematic as possible, starting with an elaborate long take of Curtis walking through the poker tables and one-armed bandits of the casino he manages, weaving in and out of people and multiple conversations. It's an overhead traveling crane shot that may not rival the opening of Touch of Evil, but it is quite striking, as well as evident of the kind of trust Curtis placed in his novice director. The montage of gamblers, including a few direct overhead shots looks straight ahead to The Cincinnati Kid, while the use of split screen in a three way conversation is future practice for The Thomas Crown Affair. Much of the film is devoted to pop culture references very current in 1962, though gags involving John and Robert Kennedy are now painful rather than funny.

The conversational commentary track, again with Ellinger teamed with podcaster Mike McPadden, points out how 40 Pounds of Trouble is of interest as a document of its time. Jewison shot on location in a Disneyland that substantially no longer exists, with many of the rides aged out. Add to that other filmmakers at that time may well have settled for second unit shots, with the actors filmed in front of a blue screen. Ellinger and McPadden also note Jewison's place in the changes in the way Hollywood films were produced. 40 Pounds was enough of a hit that Jewison became a house director at Universal for his next three films, two which were major hits starring Doris Day. As soon as he was tapped to direct The Cincinnati Kid, Jewison was able to make the transition while the old studio system was collapsing, with greater choice in projects, shooting on location, with a freer hand in onscreen and production talent.

Circling back to the star, Ellinger and McPadden discuss Curtis's career and his frustration at not being taken seriously as an actor. It should be noted that 40 Pounds followed The Outsider, a downbeat biographical drama. The story of Ira Hayes, the Native American soldier who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima, the film was Universal's one attempt with Curtis in a straight drama, and a box office failure. Curtis probably felt he had to go back to formula to maintain his stardom. By the time his contract with Universal had ended, Curtis had one major hit, again with Blake Edwards and The Great Race, followed by diminishing returns through the rest of the 1960s. Even starring in The Boston Strangler was enough to break the typecasting.

The greatest appeal of this three disc set will be for the Tony Curtis fan who will enjoy his presence for its own sake. For serious cinephile, the interest will be in the early development of the three directors, as well as an incidental tracing of the shifts in Hollywood filmmaking and the visible ending of the studio system at the most conservative of Hollywood studios.

July 28, 2020

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

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Norman Foster - 1948
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Actor turned director Norman Foster honed his directorial skills churning out the yellow face adventures of Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan. The films were produced with modest budgets and short shooting schedules. Foster found his way into Orson Welles' circle and he was entrusted with filming part of the never completed It's All True, the project pushed on Welles in the name of pan-American friendship in 1942, taking Welles away from R.K.O. and The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles also entrusted Foster with directing Journey into Fear, a film much more entertaining than some have claimed, and similar to the 1951 version of The Thing, a film subject to debate regarding how much of the directorial credit is to be taken at face value.

It would appear that everything of value that Norman Foster took from his past work was used in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. A brisk eighty minutes long, there's no dawdling around to establish place or characters. Burt Lancaster, unshaven, disheveled, world weary and volatile, is sufficiently annoyed at the barkeep in a London bar at closing time to sock him in the jaw. Unfortunately, the barkeep is knocked dead. Accidental death or not, seedy Robert Newton has witnessed the incident and calls for the neighborhood toughs to get a hold of Lancaster. On the lam, outwitting the police in part by using his acrobatic skills, Lancaster hides in the apartment of Joan Fontaine.

That chase in the beginning shows the influence of Welles. It is a series of traveling shots, including several crane shots looking down at the street. Foster emphasizes the space between Lancaster and those who pursue him. There's depth of focus. Just that part of the film, from its introduction of Lancaster to the point where he makes a truce with Fontaine as her unexpected and unwanted guest, with its use of fog and shadows, can serve as a text for explaining the look of film noir. Robert Newton reappears, like the proverbial bad penny, to blackmail Lancaster and later, Fontaine. Any border between horror and film noir is erased in the facial expressions and use of lighting on Newton's face in close-up as he threatens Fontaine.

It's not all darkness. After a bit of cajoling, Lancaster talks Fontaine into a walk through a zoo. At one point they are in front of a cage with a chimpanzee. The chimpanzee makes a face which Lancaster imitates. I am unaware of any previous comparisons, but I was reminded of a line written as I recall written by Pauline Kael, reviewing a much later Lancaster film, the western Valdez is Coming. One of those weird bits of flotsam that stays in the memory, with Kael describing Lancaster as simian in that film.

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands was Lancaster's debut as his own producer. From the perspective of his his career, his choices for roles for himself and choices off collaborators has a strange consistency. As in this film, Lancaster more often than not plays flawed characters, sometimes deeply unlikable men such as in Sweet Smell of Success as the gossip columnist. At the same time, within the same film if possible, Lancaster loved to show off his body, up through his nude scene after hitting fifty in The Swimmer. There is a beefcake moment in Kiss . . . where Lancaster, jailed following another near murderous outburst, is stripped of his shirt, and strapped and restrained to be whipped in prison. Lancaster would seem to have no problem taking second billing to the more veteran Joan Fontaine here, or later two actors he admired, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. When it came to directors, the relationships with those hired by Lancaster would occasionally be more problematic with firings of several respected filmmakers, often replaced by the more cooperative John Frankenheimer or Sydney Pollack. All the more baffling is that for his telling directors what to do (Franenheimer once told of being lifted around by Lancaster with instructions on camera placement), Lancaster never took to direction after a couple attempts about fifteen years apart.

Norman Foster could well be another director worthy of further research. His career is even more idiosyncratic than that of another former Welles associate, Richard Wilson. At the very least, Foster has directed two noted entries in film noir - Kiss . . and Woman On the Run (1950), and the amiable western, Rachel and the Stranger starring sister-in-law Loretta Young. Foster would appear to be going back to his directorial roots in shooting multiple television episodes for Walt Disney's adventured of Zorro, and most famously, Davy Crockett, mini-series before that term was invented, that eventually were re-edited for theatrical release. Of possible interest would be the handful of films Foster made in Mexico for the local audience, three with Ricardo Montalban. Of further interest is that the source novel is by the British novelist Gerald Butler, who also provided the source novel for On Dangerous Ground, and that this story about a man on the run had its screenplay handled by three blacklisted and temporarily exiled writers - Ben Maddow, Walter Bernstein and Leonardo Bercovici. Bernstein and Maddow would work again with Lancaster on two later films produced by the star, The Train and The Unforgiven respectively.

Film historian Jeremy Arnold offers a generally informative, well prepared and cleanly recorded commentary track. What I found most useful was the explanation of how mobile sets were used to make the Universal studio London look bigger than it was, and for use in those overhead traveling crane shots that open the film. Arnold also discusses the film's Orson Welles connection lightly with Norman Foster, but in greater detail regarding cinematographer Russell Metty, with a mention that Gregg Toland was initially set to do the filming. There is also the pointing out of several of the lesser know supporting players as well as notes on how Joan Fontaine and Robert Newton were cast. This is one of the better commentary tracks for a film that is best known for its wonderfully lurid title.

July 21, 2020

Michael Winner and Oliver Reed: Two Films

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The System/The Girl-Getters
Michael Winner - 1964

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Hannibal Brooks
Michael Winner - 1969
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Michael Winner directed six films with Oliver Reed. Of those six, the four released between 1964 and 1969 are the ones of most interest. The last two films have Reed reduced to supporting roles. Both the director and the actor benefited from this collaboration as it brought greater critical and commercial attention to each.

For Reed, The System is a transitional film with a role that has echoes of previous work. He appears here as Tinker, a photographer at a British beach resort town, who uses his photography to meet young women on holiday and arrange for some of them to hook up with his friends who also have summer jobs. As his nickname suggests, Tinker has created the mechanics for a system for he and his pals to have summertime romances. As in Beat Girl and The Party's Over, Reed plays the rebel leader, either by design or default, yet simultaneously seems removed from the group, carrying with him a sense of emotional distance. In her interview on the blu-ray, actress Jane Merrow discusses this sense of reserve of Reed suggesting that in this film there were similarities between the actor and his role.

The System did well enough for Winner to make two more even more commercially successful films with Reed, The Jokers, co-starring Michael Crawford, and I'll Never Forget What'sisname with Orson Welles, also reputed to be the first mainstream English language film to drop the F-bomb. The fourth film, Hannibal Brooks was less successful commercially and critically. Both Winner and Reed bounced back, Reed first with Ken Russell's Women in Love, and Winner remaking himself as primarily an action director who in a couple years would have a lucrative, and sometimes ludicrous, collaboration with Charles Bronson.

I had seen The System under its US release title, The Girl-Getters, in 1966. While the film did get rave reviews, the initial first run release was limited. It was not unusual for art and independent films at that time to skip Denver at that time. I saw The Girl-Getters as a supporting feature for Roger Corman's The Wild Angels. At that time, it was not unusual for some first run films to play as part of double features in Denver's downtown theaters. I was fourteen that summer, and unaware that Winner's film was already two years old, but I liked what I saw.

As a teenager, I was so caught up with the bad boy behavior of Tinker and his posse that I missed the point of story. While the lads are calming to be rebelling against conformity and middle class values, it's essentially summertime fun before returning to their families or school for the rest of the year. Tinker pursues a model, Nicola, and finds himself thinking of a more domestic life only to discover that Nicola has chosen a life more itinerant than his own.

Winner smartly cast the film with relatively unknown actors who were age appropriate, notably including David Hemmings. Reed was twenty-five when the film was made, but his stocky build, plus his already prodigious drinking, made him look a bit older. The film was shot during the summer of 1963, with The Beatles topping the charts in England. Too late to hire them as the rock band that briefly appears in the film, Winner did get the second most popular Liverpool band, The Searchers, to record the title song. Much of the credit for the look of the film goes to cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, just a couple films away from working with Richard Lester and John Schlesinger. Australian film historian Stephen Vagg provided the commentary track which quotes from Michael Winner and Oliver Reed's respective autobiographies, as well as anecdotes from surviving cast members.

In discussing the casting of The System, Stephen Vagg reviews Michael Winner's ability to spot future talent. As it turned out, Winner, like several other people, was overly optimistic about stardom for Michael J. Pollard. This is a World War II film, still a viable commercial genre at the time of production. Second billed, after Oliver Reed, in Hannibal Brooks, Pollard basically has a glorified supporting role as an American P.O.W. captured by the Germans, always on the lookout for a way to escape. Reed plays Lance Corporal Brooks, who is given the job of looking after an elephant, Lucy, at the Munich zoo. After a bombing in Munich substantially destroys the zoo, Brooks is assigned, along with two German soldiers, to escort Lucy to a zoo in Innsbruck, Austria, by train. Denied use of the train by a top office, Brooks is forced to walk Lucy to Innsbruck. Plans change, with Brooks attempting to get himself and Lucy over the Alps and into neutral Switzerland.

The story, created with Winner, was inspired by Tom Wright's own wartime experience caring for elephants as a P.O.W. What gets in the way is that the concept is too whimsical for a serious film that takes time for Brooks to lament about the loss of life that takes place in wartime. Reed and the elephant, Aida, do most of the literal and emotional heavy lifting here. Pollard's casting seems more of a distraction, neither sufficiently comic nor convincingly serious as needed. Based on the reviews at the time of release, there was consensus that in spite of the weaknesses, there was just enough in Hannibal Brooks to make consider it likable. Minus the elephant, Hannibal Brooks has most of the expected cliches to be found in a film about an Allied soldier escaping from Nazis. I did like the dreamy score by Francis Lai. The film is also notable as the first of Michael Winner's collaborations with cinematographer Robert Paynter, who had previously worked exclusively with documentaries.

July 07, 2020

Neurosis

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Revenge in the House of Usher
A.M. Franck (jesus Franco and Olivier Mathot) - 1983-88
Redemption Films BD Region A

The history of the making of Neurosis is almost as tortured as any of the characters to be found in the films of Jesus (Jess) Franco. The original film was badly received at a Spanish film festival in 1983. Franco followed up with an even less successful recut in 1985. Finally, actor/director Olivier Mathot revised the story once again with about fifteen minutes of new footage. Except for one glaring non sequitur, a scene involving a supporting character, this final version is surprisingly cohesive in both its narrative and visual elements.

The original film was very loosely inspired by Poe, bizarrely credited here as Edgard Allen Poe, with an umlaut over the letter e. The film was shot in and around a large castle in Andalusia, Spain, tan and arid. While the castle interior is dark, often barely illuminated, the exteriors are oppressively bright. Eric Usher is an aging doctor, exiled due to his unorthodox research and methods, visited by his former student, Alan Harker. Most viewers will recognize some of the the literary liberties taken by Franco in his names for his characters. Usher is trying to revive the life of his daughter, Melissa, with transfusions of blood from unwilling young women kidnapped by his servants Mathieu and the one-eyed Morpho. As Harker discovers, Usher appears to be suffering from a mental breakdown, battling the ghosts from his past. An for inexplicable reasons, whomever was responsible for the English dub of this film had Harker's name pronounced as Hacker.

For some, the highpoint may be the inclusion of footage from Franco's first horror film, The Awful Dr. Orloff, repurposed here as a flashback. The more generous viewer will overlook that the facially deformed assistant, Morpho, in Neurosis played by Olivier Mathot does not quite look like the Morpho of the 1962 film. Those who have even casually followed the career of Jesus Franco will revisit Howard Vernon in his first of many collaborations with the director. As usual with Franco, there is his other familiar collaborators, muse Lina Romay, Antonio Mayans, and composer Daniel White who appears as Dr. Seward. Franco also served as his own editor and cinematographer on the original production making this one of his more personal projects. It should be noted that Olivier Mathot has also appeared as an actor in other Franco films, making his participation more fitting.

Neurosis is more likely to be appreciated by those familiar with Jesus Franco. Tim Lucas provides the commentary track here, providing information on the production history including comparisons where possible between the three different versions. As might be expected, Lucas seems to leave no stone unturned, discussing various literary and cinematic connections, primarily concerning Franco, but also regarding the participation of Francoise Blanchard in Mathot's footage. There are two language options, with the film post-dubbed in English and French. What makes this of some interest are some differences in the word choices indicated in the subtitles as well as two different folk verses used in the same scene.

June 30, 2020

Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

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Sons of the Desert (William A. Seiter - 1933)

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Way Out West (James W. Horne - 1937)
plus nineteen shorts
MVD Visual / Kit Parker Films BD Regions ABC four-disc set


First, an admission. I have not seen everything in the four disc set. Part of it is because I like posting my thoughts on new home video releases on the street date, or as close to it as possible. And also, there is just so much stuff here to be seen, with an official running time of 485 minutes. While there may be some who will want to screen their own personal marathon, I prefer smaller increments. Two features, nineteen shorts (plus alternate versions of "Brats" and "Berth Marks"), plus commentary tracks, photo galleries and trailers, there is quite a lot to unpack. There is material to be gleaned by the more serious film scholar, but the main audience for this collection will more likely be the legions of fans.

For myself, this is the first time watching any Laurel and Hardy films since 2006. I was at the San Francisco Silent Festival where three shorts directed by Leo McCarey were shown to an audience of both adults and appreciative children. I am also part of that generation who grew up watching "the boys" on network television over fifty years ago. What struck me in watching this collection, which is mostly in chronological order of production, are those aspects that changed as well as what remained consistent.

The short, "Their First Mistake" (George Marshall - 1932) with an uncredited screenplay by Stan Laurel, could well be a key film. Hardy's onscreen wife complains about his spending more time with Laurel than with her. Hardy is later served divorce papers, as is Laurel for "alienation of affection". What can be found in film after film is the story of two men who prefer each others company to the almost virtual exclusion of anyone else. "Their First Mistake" continues with Hardy having adopted a child, suddenly in the situation of being a single parent, with a very funny look at gender roles. More extreme is "Twice Two" (James Parrott - 1933) with Stan and Ollie each having sisters played by the pair in drag, with Stan's sister married to Ollie and Ollie's sister married to Stan. Even if certain things might be unsaid, I do not think the filmmakers, least of all Stan Laurel, was unaware of the implications of the team's onscreen appearances.

Laurel and Hardy as a comedy team almost eclipses their earlier work. Oliver Hardy started appearing in films in 1915, and even tried his hand at directing several films before concentrating on acting. Stan Laurel was part of Fred Karno's team of British music hall performers who came to Hollywood in 1920. Along with Laurel was fellow comic performer Charlie Chaplin. The success of the "Little Tramp" was such that Laurel appeared as an imitator in several films, while Hardy was in supporting roles in films starring another Chaplin imitator, Billy West. Hardy had some comic leads, while Laurel eventually became a star in his own right, as well as a writer-director. What also makes Laurel and Hardy unique is that they were well into their thirties at the time they officially became the comic team, each with more than a decade of experience both in front and behind the camera. On screen, the two were equals as physically comic performers. Stan Laurel was the more active of the two regarding the production of the films, even listed as the producer of the feature Way Out West.

When one looks at the credits of the actors and production team, there is some criss-crossing of friends and relatives within the Hal Roach studio. Writer-director James Parrott had a brother, Charles, better known as Charley Chase, whose manic appearance is one of the highlights of Sons of the Desert. James W. Horne, director of Way Out West, was also the uncle of George Stevens, Stan Laurel's chosen cinematographer on "Battle of the Century" (1927) and "Brats" (1930). Leo McCarey's younger brother, Raymond, directed "Scram!" (1933). For all of information provided by L & H scholar Randy Skretvedt on the making of Sons of the Desert, there is no explanation as to how what is arguably the best of the feature films, was directed by William Seiter, who along with cinematographer Kenneth Peach was from outside of the Hal Roach studio.

More scholarly is Richard Bann's commentary for "The Battle of the Century". What we have is reconstruction with previously lost footage, some stills with explanatory titles, and a scan of a 16mm print. The film is most noted for the climatic pie fight which reportedly used 3000 real pies. Of interest is the brief sight of an almost svelte Eugene Pallette as an insurance salesman. Bann discusses the history of the making of the film its history as a lost film.

My only conclusion is that I do prefer the pre-code films, the gags are both more savage and more funny. Laurel and Hardy exist in a world of domineering wives, belligerent authority figures and mechanical failure. And if the former Stanley Arthur Jefferson remains the more beloved, there may be little that makes me laugh as consistently as watching Oliver Norvell Hardy getting beaned on the head.

June 16, 2020

Isadora

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Karel Reisz - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

With four different versions, there is a question regarding some of the ellipses that take place in Isadora. The original release version was 177 minutes long, seen in December 1968 for an Oscar qualifying run. The film was subsequently shortened following negative reviews from the Los Angeles critics. The British release was 138 minutes, while the U.S. version was even shorter at 131 minutes. There is a "director's cut" that was supervised by Reisz, available only on VHS at 154 minutes. For reasons unknown, possibly due to quality of the source print, the blu-ray is essentially the British release version with a brief pre-credit scene added. That scene is of Isadora Duncan as a child making a vow of how she plans to live her life. Biographical films should always be approached cautiously, even more so films that have their own troubled histories.

Isadora was never meant to be in the mold of the traditional biographical film. It's more of a dream of the past. The structure is that of Duncan during her last days at a hotel in Nice, France, 1927, remembering her past. Reisz cuts between 1927 and various points in Duncan's life from briefly performing in a musical hall to Sousa's "Washington Post", jumping forward to one of her Greek inspired performances for a salon in Europe. In the scenes that take place in 1927, Duncan becomes infatuated with a mysterious man who drives a blood red Bugatti. When not narrating her memoirs to her frustrated biographer, she whiles away time with the reading of Tarot cards, with the death card pointedly removed from the deck. Those looking for fidelity to facts would have to look elsewhere, even while the film credits Duncan's autobiography and Sewell Stokes' biography as basis for the screenplay by Melvyn Bragg, Clive Exton and Margaret Drabble.

At one point we see Duncan imagining herself running and dancing through Greek ruins. There is also a shot of Duncan dancing on an empty, gray wooden floor which is finally revealed to be the stage on which she is performing. Credit does go to Vanessa Redgrave, who not only mimics Duncan's mannerisms, but is the one doing the dancing. Unlike some films from the time before computer magic, there is no cheating with cutting between close-ups of the star and long shots of a professional dancer identically dressed viewed from a distance. Here the dances are all Redgrave, with her final dance performance in the film seen full body. Reportedly, Redgrave trained for six months before filming. Redgrave did get Oscar nomination for her performance, and won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1969.

The blu-ray features a commentary track by filmmaker/historian Daniel Kremer and director Allan Arkush. This is one of the better commentary tracks primarily because of the discussion of Reisz's use of the zoom lens, hand-held camera work, and editing. There is some discussion on Reisz writing about film editing, his history with the Free Cinema movement, and the impact his debut feature, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had on British cinema. One digression has Kremer and Arkush discussing how film editing changed with new technology. In this pre-digital era, the change was from gluing together strips of 35mm film to the use of clear tape for splicing, which in turn allowed filmmakers to easily make the deliberately more fragmented films with jump cuts and flash frames. Elsewhere Kremer and Arkush point out the use of color in Isadora, and how the film fits in with Reisz's other work as well as some of the films made at the time of release. While most of the commentary is devoted to Reisz, Kremer and Arkush also make room to discuss Vanessa Redgrave, co-star Jason Robards, cinematographer Larry Pizer, editor Tom Priestley, and score composer Maurice Jarre. My only quibble would be that that the enthusiasm of Kremer and Arkush is such that they occasionally interrupt each other in mid-thought. Otherwise, a commentary track that may seem academic in description is a lively and knowledgeable exchange.

June 09, 2020

Viktor und Viktoria

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Reinhold Shunzel - 1933
Kino Classics BD Region A

Of the various versions that were taken from the same basic premise, I went about things in backward order. First seen was Blake Edwards' Victor/Victoria at the time of release in 1982. Then a few years ago, when Netflix had a wider selection of older films available for streaming, I saw the British First a Girl (1935). It should be noted that at the time of production, Reinhold Shunzel's film was also filmed in a French language version, also featuring Anton Walbrook, at that time still known as Adolf Wohlbruck. There is also a 1957 West German remake, and an Argentinian version from 1975 that originally was set to star an actual cross-dressing star. What is also interesting is that while the 1935 and 1982 films acknowledge being based on Shunzel's film, aside from the main characters being a woman gaining show business fame impersonating a man impersonating a woman, the details of the respective narratives are different.

Contemporary viewers looking for gender-bending comedy might be happier with Edwards' film, where what was barely hinted at in the first film gets boisterously pushed front and center. There's a more gentle comedy at play here when Shunzel films the look of London's high society men infatuated with the performer, "Mr. Viktoria", assumed to be a woman on stage, until the climax with "his" wig removed. This is followed by a scene at a restaurant where several older, wealthy women hope to gain the attention of who they assume is the boyish young man. The British 1935 version has a marginally more suggestive moment of sexual confusion, although of films made during this era, neither compares to various cross-gender antics of George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935).

Remove the female as female impersonator plot, and Viktor und Viktoria remains a remarkably funny comedy. There is Renate Muller taking pratfalls in her stage debut as Mr. Viktoria. Her partner in this deception, the failed actor and original Mr. Viktoria, played by Hermann Thimig, is first seen hamming it up in an audition with virtually every Shakespearean monologue he can remember, stumbling over furniture, almost literally bringing the house down. One of the best gags is at the beginning of the film - the camera pans past a group of various actors waiting to audition, we hear the voice of a female singing an aria from an opera, the voice seems to be coming from one of the women standing along the wall, only for the camera to continue past her, and the mouth open wide with song actually was an undisguised yawn of boredom.

The film has plenty of traveling shots as well as inventive uses of sound. Shunzel also knows when to keep the camera stationary, as in a delightful shot of Muller, dressed as a male, seen in long shot trying to discretely watch Anton Walbrook walk away from her down a hotel corridor, darting away when Walbrook looks back. Renate Muller's big dance number shows the obvious influence of Busby Berkeley, with its chorus girls filmed from above, albeit with fewer dancers. Shunzel seems to have had the full artillery of technical resources at the legendary UFA studio to make a film as accomplished as anything from Hollywood in 1933.

The blu-ray is sourced from a 2013 German restoration that shows some wear, but nothing substantial. The commentary track by scholar Gaylyn Studlar points to the connections the director and stars had with Ernst Lubitsch, Max Reinhardt and Gerd Oswald, both professionally and with transgressive narratives. The stories of the several of the cast and crew are equally compelling. By 1937, when the Nazis totally took over the German film industry, Renate Muller, was no longer a top star due to her relationship with a Jewish man, death officially by suicide. Anton Walbrook, gay and Jewish, emigrated to England, with a continued successful career. Being gay and Jewish did not stop Reinhold Shunzel from being offered the title of Honorary Aryan due to his popularity as both an actor and director. Shunzel had greater confidence in the dictatorship of Louis B. Mayer and directed three films for MGM in the late Thirties, with the rest of his American career as an actor. Hermann Thimig managed to get through World War II and post-war Germany relatively untouched, continuing to act continuously in films through 1967. What makes this even more impressive is that his sister, Helene, had left Germany with husband Max Reinhardt, indicative of stardom that could even dazzle Adolf Hitler.