Review Page and Column
The Oscar 01/25/20
What an honor it is to host a review of a genuine cinematic monument: Charlie Largent dares to tell the truth about the movie that both Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick said they’d give anything to have directed. Screenwriter Harlan Ellison digs below Hollywood’s lust and venality to reveal a core of heartwarming humanism. This soaring achievement was the only film to be awarded both the Medal of Freedom and a Nobel Peace Prize. To make room in its storage vaults for priceless The Oscar outtakes, Embassy Pictures tossed worthless cans of negative for Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons into a furnace. And who would ever have guessed that Russell Rouse ghost-directed for the auteur Edward D. Wood, Jr.? Career-best performances are committed to film by Stephen Boyd, Elke Sommer, Milton Berle, Eleanor Parker and the immortal thespian Jill St. John. The long wait is over — it’s finally available at popular prices. On Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics.
What can one say about a comedy that just limps along, even when an attractive cast does fine work every step of the way? Even the bit parts are creatively cast in this odd romp infected with a really bad case of The Cutes. Natalie Wood is at her best, but in service of dumb gags: let’s blow bubble gum bubbles! The result so upset Natalie that she ditched her studio contract. The roster of engaging talent includes Peter Falk (in suave leading man mode!), Dick Shawn (less grating than usual), Lila Kedrova & Lou Jacobi (showing real style), Jonathan Winters (wasted) and, of all people, Ian Bannen as Natalie Wood’s uncomprehending husband. Bannen is so good, he drags a real laugh or two from the material. The show has been beautifully remastered — it’s part one of this week’s accidental tribute to director Arthur Hiller. On Blu-ray from The Warner Archive Collection.
Rock Hudson’s big-explosion war movie applies decent production values and decent direction to a good idea, but substitutes some weak double-crosses for a real screen story. Hudson and his co-producer Gene Corman toss in a fine stack of quality actors… who don’t do much more than dodge tanks, flame throwers, and big explosions. Those explosions look familiar — I’ll bet they were recycled in more than a couple subsequent movies. Aiding and abetting handsome Hudson are George Peppard (manning a Tarantino-issue flamethrower), Nigel Green, and Guy Stockwell, who seems to be in EVERY Universal release around this time. Part two of CineSavant’s unplanned ode to director Arthur Hiller goes out with a bang and a boom. On Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics.
Here’s a decidedly odd item, a Blu-ray release from out of the blue, unexpected, unlikely: Hammer Film’s 1959 horror comedy The Ugly Duckling. Fans have been griping and moaning for years to get decent releases of Hammer’s films on Blu-ray, and the last couple of years have seen several boutique labels step up to the plate. With just a few holdouts, most of the top titles are now available in really good transfers. If we’re stuck with a sad DVD of Robert Day’s 1965 She, it’s likely that Warners-Turner just doesn’t see the percentage quite yet in performing a remaster. The same issue applies to Hammer’s epochal first Technicolor horror The Curse of Frankenstein: the condition of its printing elements makes a remaster even more complicated. All but a handful of the company’s horror and sci-fi titles are indeed out, which indicates that future Powerhouse Indicator releases may be for studio collectors and completists only.
But The Ugly Duckling? Chances are that most casual horror fans have not even have heard of it. It falls into the lower tier category of Hammer product that didn’t see much of a U.S. release: mainly a few budget-challenged (but color) costume adventures, and frankly, other items that puzzle me. I’ve heard On the Buses described at least twice but still don’t remember what it’s about. Like other ’70s Hammer comedies it was adapted from a Brit TV show, so wasn’t considered viable over here.
The Ugly Duckling is an odd name to be assigned to a comedy take on the Jekyll-Hyde story. The twist is that the awkward nerd Jekyll is transformed into a suave, hipster Hyde. This of course sounds exactly like Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor, but nobody’s been screaming rip-off that I’ve heard about.
The surprise is that Duckling hasn’t been licensed to a disc boutique but is coming directly from Sony itself, from its Made On Demand line of discs. I didn’t even know that Sony MOD was actively adding titles at present, which is why I made sure to put the word ‘savant’ in my name. Associate Gary Teetzel, who does pay attention to such trends, has been gathering intelligence reports on the subject:
Well here’s a surprise. Hammer completists rejoice: The fabled ‘lost’ Hammer film — never really lost, just almost impossible to see — hits Blu-ray on February 18. Here’s Amazon’s present listing for The Ugly Duckling. The show doesn’t have a sterling reputation, just a long list of Hammer fanatics curious to see it. It was part of a Hammer production deal with Columbia Pictures, although the IMDB doesn’t list a release in the United States. It stars actor Bernard Bresslaw, a future regular in the endless Carry On film series and one of the actors originally considered to play The Creature in Curse of Frankenstein. Reginald Beckwith and future Doctor Who (#3, to be precise) Jon Pertwee are among the supporting cast. And to prove without doubt that The Ugly Duckling really is a Hammer film, Michael Ripper is in it.
Sony’s cover art gives absolutely no hint of a Jekyll-Hyde aspect to the film. Neither does this YouTube film clip, which we hope doesn’t represent Duckling’s comedy or horror highlight. But the completists out there have nothing to fear — Powerhouse Indicator have powerfully indicated that they are working on extras for their own release of The Ugly Duckling.
The Robert Louis Stevenson connection can’t be too serious, as the few Hammer horror books I’ve accumulated mention The Ugly Duckling only as a footnote. Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson
Gregory’s Girl 01/21/20
From the director of the beloved Local Hero: ‘Pure Simple Joy’ is an apt way to describe this deceptively meek, completely endearing Scottish film with a universal theme about adolescence and the reality of teen love. John Hughes’ teen pix do not hold a candle to the innocent charm found here. The gawky yet boundlessly optimistic Gregory falls head over heels for the teenaged wonder girl of his dreams… his only problem is that she’s light years ahead of him in terms of maturity. But the female social system takes on the problem in what must be the most gentle (make that Utopian) view of high school ever. Writer-director Bill Forsythe struck independent hit gold, through the great performances of Gordon John Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, and Clare Grogan. On Blu-ray from Film Movement Classics.
Night Tide 01/21/20
Experimental filmmaker and writer Curtis Harrington took his first shot at a feature film with this intriguing horror blend of Val Lewton ambiguity and A.I.P. nightmare thrills. Dennis Hopper is the amiable sailor at the sideshow pier who gets literally tangled up with a mermaid performer — who has some secrets he’d rather not know. Linda Lawson and Luana Anders are the romantic alternatives, but we know that sailors never pick the right woman. This two disc special edition loads the show with extras, including an impressive set of restored Harrington short films. And you’ll never think of the Santa Monica Pier’s carousel the same way again. Reviewed by the reportedly experimental Charlie Largent. On Blu-ray from Powerhouse Indicator.
House by the River 01/21/20
One of Fritz Lang’s least-known thrillers has aspects that appealed to him, and he certainly applied his personal viewpoint and visual talent. It’s a period Gothic with women in corsets, about a deranged writer who lets his desires get out of hand. It may be actor Louis Hayward’s best work. Jane Wyatt is the suffering wife, but the real honors go to Dorothy Patrick, in an all-too brief appearance. It’s yet another Lang film about a sex-killer; commentator Alexandra Heller-Nicholas relates the attempted rape to the #metoo movement. On Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics.
Hello! Let’s fan the flames for a much-desired home video release!
It was 1992 when a big laserdisc compilation of Tex Avery MGM Cartoons (above left) was released — we big $$ spending laserdisc nuts were happy to finally be able to dig through a huge chunk of Avery’s work in one go … even those sad mid-’50s retread cartoons reformatted for CinemaScope. Back in the 1980s MGM/UA Home Video released two or three VHS compilations, which were simply marvelous — my kids all knew how to imitate the slow-talking country wolf (“Hey Look, Billy’s back!”) and 1001 Avery gags became shorthand expressions for our daily use, like doing the dog’s goofy Hawaiian dance in the cartoon about the magician. The clean-but-sexy-as-all-get-out Swing Shift Cinderella taught us that Avery’s animators could really be inspired when the subject was, uh, inspiring, and Symphony of Slang introduced kids to a whole new level of vocabulary humor: “What’s a Russian Mule?”. Finally, King-Size Canary and Bad Luck Blackie snuck the concept of surrealism into their defenseless little psyches … except I think I showed my daughter Bad Luck Blackie when she was too young, and some of the cartoon’s unrestrained sadism was a little disturbing.
There the cartoons have sat for almost thirty years, with only a few remastered for HD, to show up now and then attached to a Warners Blu-ray feature release. And since my last laser player gave up the ghost several seasons ago, my collection of 12″ discs are now really only for display (my boxed sets stand proud, above right). The covers of The Compleat Tex Avery and The Val Lewton Collection are worth framing … I think the Avery box art was derived from VHS artwork.
Now the announcement is here, courtesy of Jerry Beck and Animation Scoop — a disc set with 19 cartoons. It’s just the first volume. Bad Luck Blackie and Symphony in Slang are there as classic Avery selections, along with some ‘Screwy Squirrels,’ ‘George & Junior’ and ‘Droopy’ cartoons.
Yes, rediscovering Tex Avery is a good idea at any time. My knowledgeable reviewer associate ‘B,’ volunteered yesterday to review the rumored set, and I said yes right away — ‘B’ wrote an entertaining piece on Porky Pig 101 2.5 years back. And this release is a good reminder to try and solicit a written piece from another friend, who worked with Tex and came away with some pretty nifty late-career anecdotes from the crafty Texan animation genius.
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson
Fail Safe 01/18/20
The world trembles on the brink, and liberals are in charge! The nicest President you ever met gives the Soviet Premier an offer anybody could refuse, while technical glitches, not crazy people or radical politics, are blamed for starting WW3. Sidney Lumet’s taut, scary armageddon-outta-here thriller was weighed in the balance against a certain Stanley Kubrick film and found wanting, but unless you’re a stickler for technical details it really works up a buzz. The cast & crew list is a menu of committed liberal talent. Featuring Henry Fonda, Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Edward Binns, Fritz Weaver, Larry Hagman, Janet Ward and Dom DeLuise. On Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
Tunes of Glory 01/18/20
Some critics wondered if Alec Guinness and John Mills should have swapped roles for this adaptation of James Kennaway’s incisive novel about popularity vs. discipline in the command structure of a Scots army brigade. Ronald Neame’s direction is exemplary, showcasing the powerhouse performances yet avoiding theatrical flourishes. And the movie introduces Susannah York as well. Criterion’s 4K remaster greatly improves on their older DVD release. Starring Dennis Price, Susannah York, Kay Walsh, John Fraser and Gordon Jackson. On Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.
So far no complaints about the Explosive Media All-Region Blu-ray of Major Dundee with my commentary. A long list of purchasers have asked me for the English original of my insert essay, which in the disc booklet is translated into German. I believe the commentary is the first fully-explained guide to the original continuity, taken straight from Sam Peckinpah and Oscar Saul’s shooting script. I’ll continue to send .pdfs of the insert essay to purchasers that email me, copying the first line of the essay, or its title, in German! Remember, the Twilight Time release is out of print, and has no original audio version.
Criterion’s April titles include Blu-rays of the classic Marlene Dietrich/James Stewart western Destry Rides Again ( ↑ ) and Juraj Herz’s creepy Czech political horror movie The Cremator, plus a reissue of Jean-Pierre Melville’s great tale of the occupation resistance, Army of Shadows.
Correspondent Brendan Carroll has steered me to a VCI page announcing a new Library of Congress restoration of the excellent 1932 pre-Code Lewis Milestone/Joan Crawford/Walter Huston drama Rain. The movie was heavily cut to be reissued under the Production Code, but The Mary Pickford foundation possesses an intact full-length uncut negative. A 4K restoration is underway; a disc release is projected for mid-2020.
Kino Lorber has a terrific April Blu-ray lineup. Spread out across the month is a long string of desirables that include Henry Hathaway’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Lewis Milestone’s The General Died at Dawn (1936), William Wellman’s Beau Geste (1939), the Victor Halperin/Carole Lombard horror mystery Supernatural (1933), Ernst Lubitsch’s Angel (1937), George Marshall’s Murder, He Says (1945), Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s Nazi-era Paracelsus (1943), as well as his silent masterpiece The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927) ( ↑ ); a combo of Memphis Belle (1944) and The Cold Blue (2018), William Wyler’s wartime documentary and a new documentary about Wyler; Vittorio De Sica’s Woman Times Seven (1967), George Cukor’s TV movie Love Among the Ruins (1975), a new restoration of Paul Wegener’s silent The Golem (1920), Karl Malden’s Time Limit (1957), Andrew L. Stone’s 65mm musical Song of Norway (1970), John Schlesinger’s comedy Billy Liar (1963), and Karel Reisz’s eccentric Morgan, A Suitable Case For Treatment (1966). That’s quite a list!
Correspondent Jonathan Gluckman tipped me off to a series of Museum of Modern Art new restorations being screened this month. The delights include Gustav Machatý’s notorious Ecstasy with Hedy Lamarr; Michael Curtiz’s horror classic in two-strip Technicolor Mystery of the Wax Museum; The Corman/Price/Roeg horror classic Masque of the Red Death ( ↑ ); and Raoul Walsh’s silent Loves of Carmen with Gloria Swanson. And that’s just the titles I’m familiar with. Hopefully some well-deserved Blu-rays will follow.
Note, just prior to posting: Correspondent Marc Hampton just saw the restored Mystery of The Wax Museum last night at MoMA. He writes: “I remembered you mentioned the restoration last month, and always agreed with your criticism of DVD version. Wow…it looks terrific. Like the best segments in King of Jazz, almost 3-D in their 2-color weirdness. I’ve never seen the film look this good. Or sound this good. The lady introducing the film told us how fantastic this restoration would sound, and she wasn’t kidding.
Despite the 25 degree evening, an almost packed house. Can’t gush enough, as this is one I’ve been waiting for a looooong time. Best, M”
Finally, Dick Dinman has another good podcast discussion with Warners VP George Feltenstein, this time celebrating the recent Warner Archive Blu-ray of The Bad and the Beautiful, Vincente Minnelli’s Hollywood-On-Hollywood classic.
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson
The War Lord 01/14/20
One of the more satisfying costume adventures of the ‘sixties is also one of its star’s best vehicles. Charlton Heston was born to play bigger-than-life historical types, and his Norman knight in this film has the benefit of an intelligent screenplay and a terrific supporting ensemble. This hero’s armor doesn’t shine — he’s more than willing to risk everything to possess a pagan woman with whom he’s become infatuated. Many would-be epics want us to think that the charms of unlikely damsels like Virginia Mayo and Claudette Colbert changed the course of history, but this show makes it seem more than possible. Plus, it features great action scenes and a terrific music score by Jerome Moross. With an impressive cast: Richard Boone, Rosemary Forsyth, Maurice Evans, Guy Stockwell, Niall MacGinnis, and James Farentino. On Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics.
Black Angel 01/14/20
This unassuming noir classic can boast a strong creative pedigree and an unusual ending… which I’ll not spoil. Dan Duryea is the confused pianist helping June Vincent clear her husband of a murder charge, by infiltrating the nightclub of suspicious Peter Lorre. The outline sticks close to Cornell Woolrich’s story source, and Roy William Neill contributes a classy job of direction. Also starring Constance Dowling and Broderick Crawford; Alan K. Rode’s commentary is a winner. On Blu-ray from Arrow Academy.
I’m taking an undeserved Lazy Break from the column, mainly because I just got back from a trip and there’s simply no time to do it properly. I’m sure that the CineSavant contributors will have a few juicy items for me for Saturday — if I get a review of something done in time… !
The image above doesn’t represent my condition or my attitude, no matter what my close associates might claim on the witness stand. It’s from today’s reviewed disc Black Angel.
Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson
The Titfield Thunderbolt 01/11/20
Toot Toot! The Little Engine that Could becomes a tale of the little town that could, when their tiny rail service is discontinued. A crackerjack cast of Ealing regulars — Stanley Holloway, Naunton Wayne, John Gregson — band together to take over the little spur line and keep it running. We get to see a vintage locomotive from the early 1800s in action, but the appeal isn’t limited to lovers of trains — Ealing’s knack for inspired, understated comedy is all over this show. Plus, it’s the company’s first feature in Technicolor, and is beautifully remastered. With George Relph, Godfrey Tearle, Hugh Griffith, Sidney James, and Jack MacGowran. On Blu-ray from Film Movement Classics.