Thursday, November 23, 2006

Answered DVD Prayers: Storm Warning and Kings Row

The new Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection box set features two of the most eagerly awaited (and memorable) films from the late Warners Contract Player/President's career. One of the most intriguing films Reagan (or anyone working in Hollywood during this era) made, 1950's Storm Warning is a rather fascinating potboiler featuring some of the more sensational subject matter to appear in a mainstream film of the period, most of it concerning the KKK. Mixing elements of A Streetcar Named Desire (Warning blatantly lifts key plot points from the Tennessee Williams play; the studio seems to be trying out some of Desire's more controversial material, possibly warming up for the studio's magnificent 1951 adaptation of Desire) and the socially conscious films of the period (Gentlemen's Agreement, Intruder in the Dust, Pinky, No Way Out , etc.) director Stuart Heisler serves up the 93 minute screen equivalent of the book you can't put down; as one unbelievable moment follows another, the viewer's unsure how far Heisler, screenplay penners Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks, and a strong star cast will go in depicting the racist crimes of a hate-ridden community, and the consequences of these violent acts. Considering the apple-pie era the film was produced in (and taking into account the almighty Production Code), these artists manage to delve deeper than one expects while unmasking the tragic fallout which comes from a society ruled by bigotry, hate, and fear of nonconformity.

The engrossing story loses no time in grabbing the audience's attention, as shortly after the credits roll we find Ginger Rogers, portraying Marsha Mitchell, a sleek traveling model taking a brief detour to visit her pregnant young sister Lucy (Doris Day), witnessing a KKK murder outside of a jailhouse. Immediately thereafter, Rogers identifies Day's dim but seemingly warm-hearted husband Hank as one of the killers. After this explosive opening sequence the melodramatic aspects of the film sometimes become turgid during the next hour-and-a-half, but the pace certainly never falters as the rapt audience follows Marsha's predicament, wherein the hesitant witness finds herself torn between helping noble district attorney Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) assure justice is served, and maintaining her strong family ties by keeping her mouth shut concerning who she saw at the murder scene. An unbelievable finale provides several shocks, leaving flabbergasted audiences asking the question, "Why haven't I heard about this incredible film?"

The cast goes a long way in making this material work, with Ginger Rogers and Steve Cochran the standouts. In her vivid depiction of Marsha, Rogers combines a down-to-earth, world weary charm with a tougher demeanor, making it clear Marsha will prove herself a formiable match for the crisis evolving around her (in one vivid encounter, Rogers stares down the guilty Cochran and, without uttering a word, manages to hold the screen with commanding force). However, Cochran gives the most memorable performance in the film, displaying substantial acting chops as he combines a unique blend of vulnerability, sweetness, and menace in creating his indelible portrait of Hank (Hank is obviously a low-brow cousin to Stanley Kolwalski, and Cochran delineates every sympathetic and unsavory facet of Hank's complicated nature in true and startling fashion). In support, Doris Day gives one of her standard 'nice girl' performances (Day hadn't yet honed the acting skills she displayed in Calamity Jane or Love Me or Leave Me, although she's still interesting to watch when things become extremely melodramatic and she gets the chance to do some heavy emoting) and physically she's a very convincing match for Rogers, as the two screen legends definitely appear to spring from the same family tree. Ronald Reagan is adequate, but not at his career best (he makes virtually no impression on the viewer- for more on top-notch Reagan, read on).

A decade earlier, Warners managed to create a superior account of the scandals hid beneath a small town's placid exterior in 1942's Kings Row, based on the bestseller by Henry Bellamann. Director Sam Wood expertly helms this tale involving the corruptive forces at work circa 1900 in the title locale, aided by James Wong Howe's beautiful, era-evocative B&W cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold's lush, atmospheric score, which deftly sets the right tone for each scene, and a very fine cast of players.

Outside of lead Robert Cummings, who is frequently callow and slick as the ultra-sincere Parrish, the cast of Row features a roster of talented stars determined to hit career highs via their meaty Row assignments. As the happy-go-lucky Drake McHugh, a perfectly-cast Ronald Reagan easily has the best role of his lengthy-but-largely-forgettable film career, coming across onscreen as immensely likeable (Reagan is amazingly natural, comfortable and self-assured before the cameras in this film). Reagan's completely relaxed air and friendly manner add considerable shock value when Drake's fortunes take a sudden and very severe nosedive. The tragedy which befalls Drake allows the often-panned actor to show real acting finesse, as Reagan skillfully depicts Drake's feelings of terror, self-pity, and hope in the face of truly overwhelming adversity.

As Drake's true love, Ann Sheridan effortlessly displays compassion, strength, and optimism, while Betty Field dominates her scenes as the haunted Cassandra, a troubled young woman who loves Parrish but mysteriously appears unable to escape the powerful influence of her father, Dr. Tower. As the doctor, Claude Rains creates another memorable character, skillfully adding an underlying sinisterness to the doctor's distinguished demeanor (Field's and Rain's accomplished performances illustrate Cassandra's relations with her father are deeper and more complicated than anything Casey Robinson could mention in his intelligent screenplay). Charles Colburn, veering far away from his stereotypical portrayal of a lovable old codger, adds further luster to the film with his outstanding enactment of Dr. Gordon, the town's other leading physician, who uses his venial, unorthodox practices to perform the film's most diabolical and infamous act on the helpless Reagan. Finally, with her tremulous voice and remarkably expressive eyes, Nancy Coleman is so effective as Louise, Colburn's distraught young daughter (this girl sagely discerns exactly what daddy's up to), one wonders why this talented performer didn't gain a much bigger post-Row acting career (aided by Korngold's powerful score, Coleman's frequent, welcome, and vividly believable emotional outbursts do much to keep the film exciting during the second hour).

Overall, the entertainment value found in Warning and Row makes the Reagan box set a worthwhile buy for lovers of classic films. In addition, Reagan's breakthrough role as George Gipp in 1940's Knute Rockne, All American is included, along with the well-received 1949 drama The Hasty Heart, costarring Patricia Neal and Oscar-nominated Richard Todd, and 1952's The Winning Team, wherein Reagan is reunited with Warning costar Doris Day in a biopic detailing the life and career of 1920's baseball star Grover Cleveland Alexander. Although I've only managed to view Warning and Row so far, the prints of both films looked great on their respective DVD transfers. Judging by Warner's impeccable track record, I'm assuming the print quality of the other films in this fine collection will also shine on DVD.


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