Thursday, September 28, 2006

Still Waiting for the DVD Queen and Her Court

Pondering over classic titles yet to see the light of day on DVD, I thought of posting a "top ten" list, but I quickly exceeded my limit. Here, in roughly the order of release preference, are the MIA classics I think need to see the light of day on (Region code 1) DVD:

The Heiress: Recently viewing (on a big screen with a packed house) the crown jewel in William Wyler's illustrious filmography, with peerless work by Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson, only made me more desirous for the film’s DVD release (I'd love for Universal to go full-throttle with this one- commentary, docs (someone contact de Havilland, now!), trailers, etc.- as the studio recently did with To Kill a Mockingbird and Double Indemnity).

For most of devotees of classic cinema, John Huston's beloved 1951 masterpiece The African Queen occupies the top spot among the DVD missing. Katharine Hepburn + Humphery Bogart in their sole onscreen pairing = instant must-see cinema (seldom if ever has action, comedy, romance, and star chemistry been meshed more beautifully onscreen).

Billy Wilder's tough, uncompromising Ace in the Hole provides showcase roles for the properly intense Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous, ambitious reporter and, especially, for Jan Sterling, who won the National Board of Review's Best Actress Award for her work as the tarty tramp who develops a yen for Douglas (her NBR win was an impressive feat, considering this was the year of Vivien Leigh's Blanche Du Bois; Sterling's Lorraine is one of the greatest and most unsympathetic gals to ever slouch across a screen).

The Tarnished Angels: Douglas Sirk's florid, immensely involving take on 1930’s barnstorming pilots (Robert Stack and Troy Donahue are among them) and the newsman (Rock Hudson) who becomes fascinated by their unorthodox lifestyles (the film is based on William Faulkner's Pylon), features stunning work by Dorothy Malone as Stack’s burnt-out-but-ravishingly sensual wing-walking daredevil wife, whom Rock Hudson understandably falls hard for. Previously on VHS, this is one film desperately in need of a widescreen DVD release (the racing sequences, in particular, are crying out to be seen in widescreen).

One of the cinema's best depictions of a disfunctional family on the verge of collapse, Orson Welles' 1942 drama The Magnificent Ambersons provides the director with a worthy followup to his phenomenal cinematic debut. Among a fine cast (which includes Joseph Cotton, Tim Holt, Dolores Costello, and a young Anne Baxter) Agnes Moorehead dominates the proceeedings with her astounding, emotionally overwhelming, and incredibly intense performance as Aunt Fanny, who, upon realizing the family faces financial ruin, suffers the cinema's most convincing nervous breakdown this side of Vivien Leigh's Blanche du Bois (Moorehead won the NYFC Best Actress Award, scored a Oscar nomination, and should have easily won the Supporting Actress prize for her unnerving work).

Faithfully adapted from the 1950 Broadway hit, 1952's The Member of the Wedding (beautifully directed by Fred Zinnemann) perfectly captures the spirit of Carson McCullers unsurpassable prose. Julie Harris (as the lonely, introspective title character, Frankie Adams) and Ethel Waters (as Berenice Sadie Brown, who lovingly provides the support Frankie needs to bridge the perilous gap between adolescent and young adulthood) brilliantly recreate their stage roles; IMO, Waters singing "His Eye is on the Sparrow" while comforting a forlorn Frankie and her young friend, John Henry (Brandon de Wilde, also fine recreating his original role), is one of the great moments in film.

20th Century Fox's 1954 Black Widow, starring Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, and Van Heflin, is one of the few classics over the years I've never been able to view (I missed an AMC showing years ago, assuming I've get a chance to catch the film later. HA). I've heard the work of Rogers and costar Peggy Ann Gardner is something to see, and that the film's "Whodunnit?" plot line plays out in entertaining fashion. With their onslaught of terrific film noir releases, hopefully Fox will place this Widow in its DVD web soon.

Beyond the Forest/Flamingo Road: A huge gap in the DVD camp cannon could be mended with the release of these two great 1949's potboilers (a third candidate, The Fountainhead, will soon be out via a Gary Cooper box set from Warners). Davis torpidly sighing "What a dump" and "If I don't get out of here I'll die- if I don't get out of here I hope I die" and doing almost anything else in Forest marks a high point in melodramatic emoting, and Crawford matches her in Road with her trenchant confrontations with slimy Sydney Greenstreet, culminating in Crawford's classic "dead elephant" rebuff to her portly foe (Greenstreet later tries to make Crawford pay dearly for this retort but, c'mon, when you take on the screen's original and most indestructible Fembot, you'll always come up snake eyes, Sydney baby).

Although the all-powerful Production Code forced Lillian Hellman to sanitize her controversial hit play The Children's Hour for its screen incarnation, 1936's These Three loses little power in the translation, thanks to Hellman's adroitly crafted screenplay, deft William Wyler direction, fine efforts by stars Merle Oberon, Joel McCrea, and Miriam Hopkins, and two of the most memorable kiddie performances in film history: Oscar nominee Bonita Granville as the film's hateful antagonist, Mary Tilford (second only to Patty McCormick's Rhoda Penmark as filmdom's evilest brat- Mary only kills reputations) and Marcia Mae Jones who, as Rosalie, the unwilling pawn in Mary's vengeful scheme to one-up her teachers, gives one of the richest, most believable accounts of a tormented soul I've ever seen (her naked emotionalism is profound and true).

The Hard Way: Vincent Sherman reached his peak as a skillful "Woman’s Picture" director with this engrossing 1943 rags-to-riches tale of a young woman (played by Ida Lupino, who won the NYFC's Best Actress Award for her dynamic work) determined to find a place on the right side of the tracks for her family, regardless of the cost. Fine support is offered by Dennis Morgan, Gladys George and Jack Carson, who goes much deeper than in most of his "nice guy" second banana roles, giving an unforgettable account of a lovable loser who falls victim to Lupino’s constant scheming for bigger and better things.

Montgomery Clift got his screen career off to one of the more auspicious starts in film history with his sensitive, intelligent, Oscar-nominated work in Fred Zinnemann's touching post-WWII drama, The Search (released before Clift’s also-impressive work in the first film he shot, Howard Hawks’ Red River), which mysteriously has never gained the substantial reputation it deserves. Portraying soldier Ralph Stevenson, who befriends a young refugee, then attempts to reunite the boy with his mother, Clift artfully anchors the movie (he seldom gave a better performance- it’s on par with his work in Red River, The Heiress, and From Here to Eternity).

For several decades someone, somewhere, has prevented Ray Bolger's 1952 screen incarnation of his greatest Broadway triumph in Where's Charley? from ever seeing the light of day on VHS or on DVD. This misguided person must be hunted down and persuaded to allow audiences to witness the best cinematic opportunity to view Bolger’s awesome talents outside of the Oz sphere.

Girl Crazy: Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney "put on a show" to end them all in their penultimate screen teaming, resulting in one of the best (and most underrated) stage-to-screen adaptations of a Broadway musical. The stars are more than capably assisted by Busby Berkeley’s great staging of "I've Got Rhythm" and a justifiably legendary George and Ira Gershwin score which, besides "Rhythm", allows Judy to offer renditions of "But Not For Me" and "Embracable You"- thank you, George and Ira.

Peerless 1950’s teen idols Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue are ideally paired in director Delmer Daves' somewhat-trashy-yet-compulsively-watchable 1959 melodrama A Summer Place, which finds the youngsters meeting and mating while Max Steiner’s ultra-romantic (and smash hit) theme sets the appropriate tone. Dorothy McGuire, Richard Egan, and Arthur Kennedy also make an impression, while the memorable Constance Ford, as Dee’s tight-lipped, sexually frustrated, and completely hateful mother, makes one’s jaw drop (with a straight face, Joan Crawford could offer this gorgon tips on how to show compassion to the young).

If 1943's The Gang's All Here (another item in the Busby Berkeley treasure trove) had nothing else to recommend it (and it does, including Alice Faye singing, Benny Goodman swinging, Charlotte Greenwood and Edward Everett Horton clowning, and James Ellison providing a beautifully-bone-headed performance as Faye’s romantic interest), this fantastic musical offers, in vivid Techicolor, the remarkable see-it-once-and-never-forget-it "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" number, with the phenomenal Carmen Miranda in said attire (and at her liveliest), cheerfully cavorting amid giant bananas and, at one point, proudly proclaiming:

"Some people say/I dress too gay
But every day/I feel so gay
And when I'm gay/I dress that way
Is something wrong with that?/Nooooo."

Hear, hear, Carmen.

1949’s Intruder in the Dust may be the screen’s finest translation of a William Faulkner novel. Clarence Brown unfolds this penetrating story of bigotry and redemption in incisive, skillful fashion and, among a uniformly fine cast, there’s amazing work by Juano Hernandez and Elizabeth Patterson, both of whom have possibly the best film roles of their estimable careers.

Home From the Hill/The Sundowners: 1960 proved to be a milestone year for Robert Mitchum, with the underrated star displaying his considerable thespian talents in these two quality pictures directed by mavericks Vincente Minnelli and Fred Zinnemann, respectively. Home spins a compelling tale of turmoil among an affluent Southern family, and features career-establishing work by the Georges Hamilton and Peppard; however, Mitchum, sporting a fine Australian accent, really shines in Zinnemann’s funny, endearing, and touching The Sundowners, an outstanding family comedy/drama further enhanced by rich atmosphere, colorful supporting characters (the delightful Peter Ustinov and Oscar-nominated Glynis Johns play two of them), and a wonderful costar in the form of lovely, radiant Deborah Kerr (as Mitchum’s wife), who yearns for the stability her wandering husband can’t provide (it’s one of her earthiest, most satisfying roles- Kerr won the NYFC Best Actress Award and an Oscar nod for her work; Mitchum picked up the National Board of Review’s Best Actor prize for his excellent performances in both films).

Those are (most of) my picks. Any others?

Friday, September 08, 2006

Thoughts on a Memorable Eve

As I neared the end of reading Sam Stagg's entertaining tome "All About All About Eve," I once again found myself turning to Joseph Mankiewicz's 1950 classic, based on the short story "The Wisdom of Eve" by Mary Orr. Since first viewing the film as a teen in the early 1980's, I've made a lifetime commitment to Eve. Over the years I've lost count of how often I've marveled at Mankiewicz's ingenious bon mots and Bette Davis' legendary work in the part that launched 1,000 female impersonations, and I've yet to grow tired of the movie's stringent wit and sophistication- the film remains a fresh, lively entertainment throughout repeated viewings: in the case of Eve familiarity does not breed contempt, only pleasure. Although a line from the film- "What can there be to know that you don't know?"- perfectly addresses the problem in attempting to write any overview of this all-time great, as one of my top five favorite movies, I can't resist the temptation to offer some musings regarding Eve.

Mankiewicz, riding high immediately following the success of A Letter to Three Wives (for which he won two Academy Awards) reached his creative apex with Eve, adeptly crafting filmdom's finest, most insightful and mesmerizing comedy/drama. Although the film runs a substantial 138 minutes, Eve never feels tired or drawn out, as the writer/director adroitly unfolds the story's classic scenes and dialogue without ever losing the audiences' interest. While paying tribute to the film during A.F.I.'s broadcast of "100 Years. . . 100 Movies" Richard Dreyfuss stated he thought Eve contained the best movie script ever; it's hard to dispute his claim: Mankiewicz poured all of his skill and talent in penning Eve's remarkable screenplay, and the impressive intellect and wit on display remain second-to-none in the annals of film.

In her rich, indelible gallery of screen portrayals, Margo Channing reigns near, if not at, the top of Bette Davis' filmography. Seldom has a star been afforded the chance to excel in a role so aptly suited to showcase all her talents and Davis, taking over the part after Claudette Colbert was derailed due to an injury on the set of Three Came Home, utilizes all her substantial acting abilities, achieving greatness while delivering a vivid, multi-layer portrait of a Broadway diva forced to stare down some difficult personal and professional demons as middle age creeps up on her. Davis puts her distinctive mark on every scene, including the famous "Fasten your seatbelts" cocktail party and Margo's perceptive "last analysis" to Karen. Davis' most awesome Eve achievement may be one of her more subdued moments: in Margo's midnight call with Bill, Davis perfectly illustrates the character's transition from a drowsy, confused state at being awakened unexpectedly (the groggy, distant voice Davis employs convinces one she truly has just been woke up, no easy feat) to her complete realization of Eve's threat to Margo's relationship with Bill, exemplified by the scene's final shot of a now wide-awake Margo staring out into space in deep thought while pondering the ramifications of the conversation.

Although Davis' magnificent playing of the central role easily dominates the proceedings (Davis is so vivid it took me many viewings to realize Margo's not around much during the film's final half hour, save for her terrific exit line, the great "You can always put that award where your heart ought to be" kiss off to Eve), some of the other cast members score big too: as sage, wry critic Addison De Witt, Oscar winner George Sanders serves as a perfect mouthpiece for some of Mankiewicz's most acerbic lines; Thelma Ritter's excellence as Birdie provides a blueprint for the warm-but-wisecracking maids and mothers Ritter would beautifully play for the rest of her career (and Ritter's so spot-on in her role, I wish Birdie could've stuck around for some of the later scenes- she mysteriously disappears once Eve becomes firmly entrenched in Margo's circle of friends); and, in the brief role of "Miss Caswell" a young, radiant, and funny Marilyn Monroe gives every indication she's headed for the huge post-Eve career she actually attained.

My main reservation with the film has always been the casting of about half the leading roles, starting with Anne Baxter as the title character. To be fair, I enjoy Baxter's juicy Oscar-winning performance in The Razor's Edge, love her as "Mike" in Yellow Sky, which includes a classic moment wherein pint-size Baxter convincingly wallops rangy Gregory Peck with a mean right hook, and find her way over-the-top portrayal of Nefertiti in The Ten Commandments colorful and fun. The first time I viewed Eve I had no trouble with her overt bitchiness, especially when Eve lets her guard down and is supposed to be shown at her worst (Baxter has her best Eve moment in the power room confrontation she shares with Celeste Holm: as Eve viciously fires away at Karen, attempting to blackmail her into compliance in Eve's scheme to steal the lead in Lloyd Richard's new play, Baxter's so phenomenally nasty I found myself kicking the unoccupied seat in front of me upon my original viewing of Eve). However, subsequent viewings reveal Baxter is obviously making Eve's intentions all-too-evident to the audience from her first scene. It's hard to believe no one besides Birdie would immediately see through Baxter's Eve, and cast her back into the dank alley from whence she came. The role is demanding, and Baxter is determined to give it all she's got, but she's clearly "acting" every second, which works against her during the early scenes. Mankiewicz reportedly didn't want to cast Jeannie Crain (studio head Daryl Zanuck's choice) in the role, as he felt she lacked the "bitch virtuosity" Baxter could employ in the part; however, this is exactly why I think a "good girl" like Crain would've possibly worked better, as Eve's innocence wouldn't be in question until later in the film (in further defense of Crain, I think Mankiewicz underrated her onscreen abilities: she proved herself a capable dramatic performer in possession of some sharp edges to her acting chops in her Oscar-nominated role in the prior year's Pinky and under Mankiewicz's tutelage in his other enduring classic, A Letter to Three Wives; judging from these performances, Crain could have handled the from-Dorothy Gale-to-Medea-in-sixty-seconds character switch with aplomb).

Although Davis, Sanders, Ritter, Monroe, Gregory Ratoff, and Barbara Bates (who, in the brief role of "Phobe", does an expert job of moving from fawn to barracuda, and caps the film nicely with a terrific final shot), offer definitive portrayals, I think the remainder of the cast is adequate, but not top-flight; my "dream cast" would include Crain (or, judging by her work in the final scene, Bates) as Eve, Ann Sothern as Karen (I usually love Holm, the consummate professional, but she slightly overplays Karen in a theatrical and studied "Grand Dame" manner- the down-to-earth Sothern, who was considered for the part, would've been effortlessly good-natured-yet-perceptive, providing a nice contrast to Davis' showy Margo; Sothern waited nearly four decades before finally scoring an Oscar nod playing opposite Davis, in 1987's The Whales of August), William Holden as Bill Sampson, and Kirk Douglas as Lloyd Richards (don't laugh- ultimate he-man Douglas was just fine portraying an intellectual schoolteacher in Wives, and he matched up perfectly with Sothern in the film).

Idle musings on casting aside, the Davis and Mankiewicz collaboration assure Eve of its deserved, lasting placement near the top of any list of Hollywood's masterworks.

Random Eve data:

14 Oscar nominations (tied with Titanic for most nods)
6 Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Costume Design (Edith Head), Sound Recording)

Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay; nominations for Picture, Director, Actress (Davis), Supporting Actor (Sanders), and Supporting Actress (Ritter)

New York Film Critics Awards for Picture, Director, and Actress (Davis)

National Board of Review: Placed #2 on the Board's top ten list (behind Sunset Boulevard)

Screen Writers Guild of America: Winner for the Best Written Comedy

Screen Directors Guild of America: Best Director

Cannes Film Festival: Special Jury Prize and Best Actress (Davis)

American Film Institute:

#16 on the Top Hundred Films list

#9 on the Top 100 Movie Quotes list (for "Fasten Your Seltbelts..." of course)

#23 Villian (Eve Harrington) on the "Heros and Villians" Top 100 list (Only 23rd? I'm sure we'll soon find Eve smoozing up to top-listers Hannibal Lector and Norman Bates, in an attempt to steal their crowns. My money's on the bitch- before she's through she'll have Norman running home to mama, while Hannibal will turn vegetarian after spending a few days with the cinema's most unappetizing ingenue).