Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Here's my list of the best home video releases of 2013. Just remember, I'm picking only from the discs that I bought in the last year....and even I can't buy everything.
It seems now that most of the big movie home video news concerns product being upgraded to Blu-ray. Very little product now is being debuted on DVD or Blu-ray for the very first time--the studios are taking their most famous films and putting them in extra-special editions, or they are letting other companies like Shout Factory and Twilight Time do the work for them. I'll discuss this further in a future blog about one of the Criterion Blu-rays I have pre-ordered.
There were still plenty of opportunities for me to spend my hard-earned money in 2013. There were four movies on this list that I never actually owned before on DVD or Blu-ray (I never had the 1934 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH on DVD because all the versions of it were so lousy).
1. THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION (Blu-ray) from Shout Factory and MGM
I wrote a full blog about this in November. A jam-packed set, with six of Vincent Price's greatest films, all looking better than ever on Blu-ray. So many extras I still haven't gotten through them all yet.
2. THE BIG GUNDOWN (DVD/Blu-ray) from Grindhouse Releasing
I just wrote about this yesterday! Any home video release that includes a CD of a Ennio Morricone soundtrack deserves accolades. Grindhouse also brought out this year the DVD/Blu-ray of CORRUPTION, where the extras were far more impressive than the film.
3. THE BIG PARADE (Blu-ray) from Warner Home Video
One of the greatest silent films ever made, and one of the few worthy major studio home video releases of 2013. The Blu-ray format is starting to become the silent film's best friend (which is rather ironic, when you think about it). I wrote a full blog on this in October.
4. THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (Blu-ray) from Criterion
Of course there's going to be at least one Criterion title on this list. But even if you took away all the usual Criterion bells and whistles, this would still deserve high praise simply because it gives the home viewer a great-looking print of one of Alfred Hitchcock's most famous (and important) films. I wrote a full blog on it in January.
5. THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (Blu-ray) from Cohen Media
Another legendary silent film gets an impressive Blu-ray release. Cohen also came out with a Blu-ray of D. W. Griffith's INTOLERANCE, which I've heard great things about. I wrote about this one in March.
Are there any New Year's Eve movie traditions? There's dozens and dozens of Christmas movies....but there doesn't seem to be a clear-cut genre known as the "New Year's Eve film". When I was a kid I remember local stations showing Marx Brothers movies on New Year's Eve, and some channels still do. I don't know where the idea of having the Marx Brothers on during the night of 12/31 came from (if anyone out there knows, please leave a post in the comments section).
There are of course a lot of movies that have New Year's Eve scenes. And it always seems that whenever a movie has such a scene, it means that something bad is about to happen (POSEIDON ADVENTURE, anyone?). For some reason the coming of the new year is a portent of doom in the world of the cinema.
A perfect example of this is MADE FOR EACH OTHER (1939), produced by none other than David O. Selznick.
MADE FOR EACH OTHER is about the struggles of a young married couple, played by Carole Lombard and James Stewart. (The title sequence at the beginning of the film shows Lombard and Stewart signing their names on a wedding license, a nice touch.) Stewart plays John Mason, a young New York City lawyer who marries Jane (Lombard) after spending just one day with her. (If I had spent only one day with Carole Lombard, I'd have married her too.) The newlyweds have to deal with John's crusty boss (Charles Coburn), who doesn't give John a promotion, and John's overbearing mother (Lucile Watson), who winds up living with John & Jane in a small apartment. Jane has a baby boy, but soon John is distressed by all the bills coming in and his lack of success at the law firm.
I don't want to call MADE FOR EACH OTHER a "dramedy"--that's a 21st Century term and it really doesn't apply here. It attempts to be a slice-of-life melodrama. The real charm in watching this picture is seeing Carole Lombard and James Stewart. They work great together, and it's a shame they were never able to co-star in a real honest-to-goodness comedy.
So far MADE FOR EACH OTHER is a nice little story about an appealing married couple--but David O. Selznick didn't want to make nice little stories. As New Year's Eve approaches, the movie gets darker, and the script starts going off the rails.
On New Year's Eve John and Jane are all dressed up, but they have no place to go--John's rival co-worker promised to pick them up and take them to a party, but he doesn't show. Soon John, Jane, and John's mother start arguing (Jane finally tells her mom-in-law off, something the viewer has been wanting her to do for the whole movie). John angrily leaves, and Jane follows him. The couple wind up at a club, where during a raucous celebration John tells Jane he thinks the marriage has been a mistake. A sobbing Jane decides to call home to check on the baby--and she finds out the baby is terribly sick.
The baby has pneumonia--and only a special serum will cure him. Nobody in New York has any of the serum--it can only be found in Salt Lake, and it has to be flown in, but there's a major storm in that part of the country, and no pilot will take a chance on flying except for a lot of money, so John has to barge into his boss's house in the middle of the night, and beg him for help, and--you see how this movie is going? The nice little film has turned into a heavy-handed overwrought soap opera. But it gets even better--or worse.
A pilot finally does take up the offer to fly. He gets lost in the storm, and no one is able to make contact with him. I have to mention that while all of this is going on, William Cameron Menzies' production design gets more and more expressionistic--the Catholic hospital the baby is at resembles a haunted house instead of a place of healing. Jane goes into the hospital chapel to pray for her baby's life, in a scene that looks like it comes from a John Ford movie.
Just after Jane's prayer, the skies clear...but the pilot starts having engine trouble, and he has to bail out. When he hits the ground, he's knocked unconscious...but he soon wakes up and, although injured, crawls to a nearby farmhouse where the farmer phones the hospital.
The baby is saved....but after so much melodramatics I can't say the same for the movie. I don't know this for sure, but I suspect the memo-writing hand of David O. Selznick himself was involved in "improving" the third act of the story. Selznick always wanted something big, and MADE FOR EACH OTHER certainly ends in a big way.
The late 1930s was the period when Carole Lombard appeared in a number of films which were designed to show that she was more than just a "screwball girl". She handles the dramatics in MADE FOR EACH OTHER very well....but she didn't need the movie's contrived climax to prove she was an excellent actress. James Stewart is typically James Stewart....but his character is a bit too much of a nice guy, and Stewart doesn't really get the chance to use his nervous energy and take matters into his own hands.
MADE FOR EACH OTHER was not a box office hit, and it is not regarded as a great film by either Carole Lombard or Jimmy Stewart fans. It is well directed by James Cromwell, and of course being a Selznick picture it is well produced (maybe too well produced, considering that it's supposed to be about a struggling young married couple). The wild ending of MADE FOR EACH OTHER keeps it from being known as a classic. By the way, if you do want to purchase this movie on DVD, stay away from all the cheap public domain copies on the market. MGM home video has a version on DVD which has excellent picture and sound quality, and you can easily find it online.
As for New Year's Eve....that's a date where you don't want to be a movie character.
Monday, December 30, 2013
Grindhouse Releasing has just come out with a magnificent DVD/Blu-ray version of the cult spaghetti western THE BIG GUNDOWN (also know as LA RESA DEI CONTI).
THE BIG GUNDOWN was made before Sergio Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, but it was released after that seminal film. THE BIG GUNDOWN features a number of people who had worked with Leone in the past, including actor Lee Van Cleef, producer Alberto Grimaldi, screenwriter Sergio Donati, and composer Ennio Morricone.
This movie was obviously influenced by the Leone Euro-westerns (the title credits for THE BIG GUNDOWN are strikingly similar to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY), but it is not just a cheap ripoff. Director Sergio Sollima gives THE BIG GUNDOWN a very stylish, professional look--it could even pass as a American western. There's plenty of violence and some extreme elements, but this picture is nowhere near as outlandish as the usual spaghetti western would wind up being in a few years time.
The story concerns Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef), a legendary bounty hunter on the trail of the wily bandit Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), who is accused of the rape and murder of a young girl. Corbett eventually learns there's more to the story than meets the eye, leading to a showdown with the corrupt magnate (Walter Barnes) who was trying to convince Corbett to run for U. S. Senate.
THE BIG GUNDOWN is considered by many to be a "political" western (all the extras on this DVD/Blu-ray package refer to this time and time again). Personally I feel it's not as "revolutionary" as people say it is. The charismatic bandit being falsely accused of terrible crimes to cover up larger corruption is an old movie plot device (heck, it's the basis of the Robin Hood legend). There have always been evil rich guys in American western films--I think THE BIG GUNDOWN gets the political reputation more because it was made by Europeans in the 1960s.
Having said that, it is a very good and a very well made film. Van Cleef is re-doing his "Colonel Mortimer" role from FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and he's co-starring with a younger and more volatile actor (something Van Cleef did in just about every Euro-western he wound up making). Tomas Milian makes a big impression as Cuchillo (he's sort of like a younger version of Eli Wallach's Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY). Milian and Van Cleef play off of each other very well, and Milian would go on to star in many other spaghetti westerns by himself.
Grindhouse has pulled out all the stops for their home video version of THE BIG GUNDOWN. This package comes with four discs: the 95 minute American version of the film on DVD: the American version of the film on Blu-ray; the 110 minute Italian version (titled LA RESA DEI CONTI) on Blu-ray; and the original Ennio Morricone soundtrack on CD.
There's a ton of extras, including DVD-ROM content on the DVD; interviews with Sergio Sollima, Sergio Donati, and Tomas Milian; an audio commentary by film journalists C. Courtney Joyner and
Henry C. Parke; a booklet featuring liner notes by Joyner and Euro-music expert Gergely Hubai; and still galleries, trailers, and TV spots. The Blu-ray for the Italian version of the film has a music-only track featuring Morricone's score in stereo, and it also has a text commentary discussing Morricone and the score. (NOTE: The Italian cut of the film is not dubbed in English, but it does have English subtitles.)
That's an amazing amount of material for a spaghetti western--some might say that a movie like this doesn't deserve such coverage, but I think it's great that Grindhouse Releasing has put together a set like this. If you are wondering what the visual quality of the Blu-rays are, it is excellent. If you are any type of spaghetti western fan, this is definitely a must-have...I'm sure there will be some who will buy this just for the Morricone soundtrack CD alone. Without doubt one of the best DVD/Blu-ray releases of 2013.
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
I'd like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New 2014. Hopefully you woke up this morning to find Betty Grable playing with your new train set.
Christmas greetings from the set of METROPOLIS!
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
NOTE: I did not see this film in 3-D, or in 48 fps, or 96 rpms, or any of that stuff.
I really don't know why I'm even writing this post. Just go to my blogs timeline and scroll down to last December and read my thoughts on the first HOBBIT film. What I wrote then just about sums up THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG--a well-made production, but way overstuffed and overlong.
This time Peter Jackson & Co. make it all the way to page 233 of my paperback The Hobbit book. There's plenty of CGI-fuelled action sequences to spare, and just when you think that one of them is finally going to come to a climax....it goes on for about five more minutes. A perfect example of this is the part where Bilbo and the dwarves escape the Wood Elves through the use of barrels and a rapid waterway. It's one of the book's best moments, but Peter Jackson just can't leave well enough alone--he throws in a Orc-Elf battle, and so many crazy CGI stunts that it starts to border on the ridiculous.
Jackson also throws in a non-Tolkien created character--a hot female Elf (Evangeline Lilly), who serves as kind of a girlfriend for Orlando Bloom's Legolas. (If you can't remember what Legolas did in The Hobbit novel, that's because he wasn't IN the novel.) The hottie Elf was probably invented as a sop to all those critics who feel that Tolkien's Middle Earth doesn't have enough female characters (I guess political correctness is more important than great literature). The Elf chick even winds up having a mutual attraction to one of the dwarves (?????), at which point I started to wonder if Michael Bay had directed this film.
One thing I will say in this film's favor is that all the various locations of Middle Earth are superbly realized....the production design is fantastic. It's a great movie to look at....it might even work better as a silent film, with just Howard Shore's music on the soundtrack. (Yeah, like that's gonna happen.)
Eventually, the boys finally do get to Smaug. The dragon is certainly an impressive creature....but if you are any sort of film buff you've seen plenty of great cinematic dragons in your time. Just think about DRAGONSLAYER, and Ray Harryhausen, and heck, you can go all the way back to Fritz Lang's DIE NIBELUNGEN. What I'm trying to say is, with all the FX-laden movies being foisted on the public in the last decade, a creation like Smaug just can't have the same impact that it would have say, about fifteen years ago. Smaug is voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, and he has almost as many lines of dialogue as anyone else in the cast.
Is THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG worth seeing? If you are a Tolkien fan, or a fan of the other movies, yeah, I think you should go see it on the big screen. If you are not a super-fan of these films, it's best if you stay home. SMAUG does has some nice moments mixed in with all the extra filling. But THE HOBBIT should have been really only one film, or maybe two. After the third HOBBIT entry comes out, Peter Jackson should go through the trilogy, throw out all the unnatural additives, and edit it down to one great movie. That's the version of THE HOBBIT that I am waiting for.
Friday, December 20, 2013
I started getting interested in the film career of Christopher Lee as a teenager. At the time (the mid-1980s) there were still a number of Lee's movies that were just about impossible to see, or have any accurate information on. One title that I assumed had to have been one of the sleaziest Eurotrash films imaginable was THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963), directed by the legendary Mario Bava. The few details that I could glean about it were that it was supposedly steeped in sadomasochism, and it had been heavily censored wherever it played.
After finally seeing the film for the first time over a decade ago (thanks to VCI Home Video's DVD), I found THE WHIP AND THE BODY to be a well-mounted, dark, Gothic ghost/love story....highly unusual, but nowhere near as nasty as I had been lead to believe. THE WHIP AND THE BODY is now available on Blu-ray through Kino Lorber.
Christopher Lee plays Kurt Menliff, the disreputable son of an aristocratic family. At the beginning of the film Kurt returns to his family's ancestral castle, supposedly because of hearing about his brother's wedding. The brother has married Nevenka (Daliah Lavi), an old flame of Kurt's. Soon after his arrival Kurt finds Nevenka alone on a beach near the castle. Nevenka tries to ward him off with her riding crop, but Kurt grabs it and starts whipping her--and soon Nevenka shows pleasure at the act.
That night Kurt is killed by an unknown assailant. After a burial in the family crypt, Nevenka starts to see visions of Kurt...and soon the whip turns up again as well.....
THE WHIP AND THE BODY (also known as LA FRUSTA E IL CORPO and WHAT!, the title it was given in America) really has very little gore and violence in it at all (there are far worse things being shown on American prime time television). It doesn't have much of a plot either--this is a film that relies on mood and atmosphere. It's a perfect showcase for the rich visual style of Mario Bava. All the Gothic flourishes are present and accounted for. Some have called this tale Mario Bava's version of a AIP/Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe movie--personally I think Bava is a way better stylist than Corman.
Christopher Lee gets killed off about twenty minutes in the story, but he remains a overwhelming presence throughout. The role of Kurt Menliff definitely calls for an actor of Lee's stature. In this straight guy's opinion, Lee never looked more dashing on screen--he and the exquisitely beautiful Daliah Lavi make one of the best looking (and most dysfunctional) screen couples of all time.
As for Lavi herself, she does very well in a extremely complex and challenging role. Nevenka is a woman who fears and desires Kurt all at the same time, a woman with some rather extraordinary issues. She isn't just the standard Gothic romantic heroine. If Bava had cast, say, Barbara Steele as Nevenka, the ending (which I won't reveal here) would have been rather obvious.
Now, as to the Blu-ray....Kino's print of THE WHIP AND THE BODY is taken from a French version of the film (the onscreen title is LE CORPS ET LE FOUET). The picture on this Blu-ray looks darker than on the VCI DVD. The VCI DVD was non-anamorphic, and the Blu-ray is a lot sharper....but I felt that the colors on the Blu-ray were not as vibrant as on the DVD.
Mind you, I'm not telling you what the movie should look like, or what the movie shouldn't look like. Only the late Mario Bava could have done that. I'm just telling you what the Blu-ray looks like to me, personally.
The only extra is carried over from the VCI release. It is the superlative audio commentary by VIDEO WATCHDOG editor (and Bava biographer) Tim Lucas. The Blu-ray has three dialogue tracks: English, Italian, and French (note that Christopher Lee's voice is not heard in any of them).
For those who already own the VCI DVD of this title and want to know if the Blu-ray is worth getting, I would say that it is, simply because it is in anamorphic widescreen. If you are not sure of purchasing this, you may just want to wait awhile--Kino usually has discounts on product that has been out after a period of time, and you may be able to catch a good price on it. I think Christopher Lee and Mario Bava fans will certainly want to pick this up, and for those of you who have never seen THE WHIP AND THE BODY, don't be put off by the exploitative title. It's worth viewing for any purveyor of weird cinema.
Thursday, December 19, 2013
My latest purchase from Edward R. Hamilton Discount Booksellers is GRAND DUEL, an early Seventies spaghetti western starring the master of the genre, Lee Van Cleef.
Before he agreed to star in Sergio Leone's FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, Lee Van Cleef had spent most of his Hollywood career being killed on-screen by just about every leading man in the business--including the likes of Rock Hudson, Randolph Scott, and Kirk Douglas. Van Cleef also made appearances in such TV shows as "Bonanza" and "The Rifleman". Western fan Sergio Leone had remembered all these roles, and more importantly, remembered Van Cleef's presence. After FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE was released, Van Cleef's career underwent a revival, especially in Europe, where he became a huge star.
Van Cleef went on to play in a number of spaghetti westerns, and each role was almost always a variation of his "Colonel Mortimer" of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. The typical Van Cleef character was a taciturn bounty hunter (or former lawman), someone who was proficient with any type of firearm, and who usually acted as a sort of mentor to a younger, more emotive co-star. Throughout Van Cleef's Euro-western career he would even continue to wear his "Colonel Mortimer" costume--black Western suit, black hat, and black overcoat.
GRAND DUEL fits all the requirements for a Van Cleef spaghetti western--he's got the suit, he's a former sheriff that can outduel anybody, and he's paired with a younger actor (Alberto Dentice, billed here as "Peter O'Brien"). Dentice plays Philipp Wermeer, who is wanted for the murder of Old Man Saxon, the head of a corrupt and powerful family that runs--what else--Saxon City. Ex-Sheriff Clayton (Van Cleef) knows who really committed the crime, and most of the film is made up of Philipp and Clayton trying to outwit the Saxons.
GRAND DUEL is fairly straightforward for a spaghetti western. There's very little of the wildness and wackiness that makes the genre so entertaining. One of the Saxons does has some weird attributes--he's got a pockmarked face, he dresses entirely in white, and he wears a scarf. And, in the immortal words of Eddie Murphy....he ain't the most masculine guy in the world.
There are some very well-edited gun fights, but the violence quotient is pretty tame compared to most examples of this type of film. (There is, however, a massacre of innocent townspeople--what would a spaghetti western be without one?) GRAND DUEL is professionally done (it was directed by Giancarlo Santi, who worked with Sergio Leone) and worthy of a look, but it is not a great film, or even a great spaghetti western film.
This movie has gotten some notice in recent years due to Quentin Tarantino using the movie's title theme on the KILL BILL: VOLUME ONE soundtrack. On the KILL BILL soundtrack CD, this theme is credited to Luis Bacalov; on this DVD version of GRAND DUEL, the music score is credited to Sergio Bardotti. Trying to find "official" information on any non-Leone spaghetti western is like trying to find an honest person in Washington D. C.. Nearly every European oater has about five different titles, five different running times, five different cast & crew credits, etc.
This DVD of GRAND DUEL comes from Blue Underground, a company that has released numerous rare cult titles to home video over the years. The picture is in anamorphic 2:35 widescreen and looks great. The sound is excellent as well--of course the film is dubbed in English. The running time here is 94 minutes....who knows if it is the full version (see comment above). The extras are a commentary by Euro-western enthusiasts C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke, a theatrical trailer (in which the title is THE BIG SHOWDOWN instead of GRAND DUEL), and various trailers for other Blue Underground spaghetti westerns.
Sunday, December 15, 2013
Today marks the passing of another screen legend--the acclaimed Irish-British actor Peter O'Toole. O'Toole was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar eight different times, and he never won once.
O'Toole of course will always be remembered for his portrayal of T. E. Lawrence in director David Lean's monumental LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. It was the role that brought him world-wide renown, but in a way also defined the rest of his movie career. O'Toole took on a huge undertaking as Lawrence--he's on the screen for almost four hours, and he has to hold up a massively epic production. Yet despite this O'Toole's Lawrence is endlessly fascinating, a great historical figure who at the end of the film remains unreachable to the audience.
O'Toole would spend the rest of his time on the screen playing many Lawrence-like characters--powerfully charismatic men, men who have a bit of mystery about them, and seem bent on a path of self-destruction. O'Toole was more of a great actor than a great star. As an actor he had a quirky, unusual aspect about him. Even when he was playing a "normal" role (which wasn't very often), he didn't seem normal. O'Toole might have made a lot more famous films if he had been more "mainstream"....but then he wouldn't have been Peter O'Toole.
Peter O'Toole belonged to a group of actors from the United Kingdom who first gained attention in the late 1950s and early 1960s--a group that included Albert Finney, Laurence Harvey, Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Michael Caine, and Sean Connery. The accomplishments of that group are numerous and legendary. I highly doubt we will remember "The Brat Pack" in the same way.
If you spend any amount of time on the internet, you know that every single day, some one who has appeared in movies or TV passes away. It gets kind of depressing after awhile, but maybe if Peter O'Toole becomes a trending topic, a person who has never heard of him will go out of their way to find out more about the man and his work as an actor.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Having just read Victoria Wilson's new biography of Barbara Stanwyck, and this being the holiday season, I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at Frank Capra's other Christmas movie, MEET JOHN DOE.
MEET JOHN DOE was Frank Capra's first film as an independent producer-director after he left Columbia Studios, his work home for more than ten years. Capra obviously wanted to show what he could do "by himself", so to speak, so he and partner-screenwriter Robert Riskin set out to make the ultimate Frank Capra movie. If you watch MEET JOHN DOE, and if you are familiar with Capra's other films, you'll notice right away that just about every scene in the picture is a variation of something that Capra had already filmed. Every element that one recognizes as "Capraesque" is included in MEET JOHN DOE--a naive, well-meaning leading man; a materialistic, hard-working, but also compassionate and soft-hearted leading lady; a rich, powerful, and arrogant villain; and of course a number of supporting characters who represent Capra's beloved "little people" and who usually wind up stealing the picture.
The movie begins with a big-city newspaper, The Bulletin, being bought out by a huge media conglomerate owned by D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold). The newspaper's motto, which includes the words "free people" and "free press", is literally jackhammered off the side of a building (not exactly a subtle touch from Capra). Most of the staff of the Bulletin is let go, including columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck). Ann decides to write her last column about a letter she supposedly received from a man who calls himself "John Doe". This John Doe claims that he will jump off the roof of City Hall on the night of Christmas Eve in protest against the state of modern society.
The column becomes a sensation, and Ann convinces the Bulletin's editor (James Gleason) to hire someone to fill the role of "John Doe". A drifter and ex-minor league ballplayer, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is hired--Ann is attracted to him straight off--and the Doe story gets even bigger. To stave off accusations that John Doe is a fake, Ann is personally hired by D. B. Norton to write a national radio speech for him. The speech is a huge hit, and soon John Doe Fan Clubs are springing up all over America. Ann and John go on a nation-wide tour (with Ann still writing everything John says), backed by Norton. The media baron decides to hold a John Doe convention, for the purpose of having Doe "nominate" Norton as a third-party candidate for President.
The basic plot of MEET JOHN DOE is a great one--John Doe, in a way, is a reality-show star. Just think about this--what if one of the Duck Dynasty people starting talking about politics? You could very easily make up a "John Doe" today, and he'd probably be as popular as Gary Cooper's in the first part of the film. And how about D. B. Norton? A hard-charging, powerful, wealthy businessman who wants to start his own political party and be President? Sound familiar?
MEET JOHN DOE is another one of those "old movies" that is just as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1941. Unfortunately it has one major problem, which we shall get to.
When Long John finds out about Norton's plans for the John Doe Convention, he confronts Norton and his fat-cat associates. Long John tells Norton he will tell the delegates that they are being used. Norton fights back by going to the convention, revealing that Long John is a fake, and having his own personal police force, the "D. B Norton Troopers" (black-clad guys who resemble the SS) cutting off the public address system when Long John tries to speak.
The attendees at the convention (all members of various John Doe Fan Clubs) turn on their hero, and Long John is disgraced. Soon it is Christmas Eve....and it is here where the movie falls short of being great.
There's really only one way MEET JOHN DOE should end...with Long John jumping off the top of City Hall. That's the only way he can prove he isn't a fake, the only way he can get back at Norton. The entire movie is really based around whether a man is going to commit suicide. Despite all the homespun Capra attributes, that's what it boils down to.
Capra and Riskin wrote themselves into a corner. They set up a situation where their leading man has to die by his own hand to prove his convictions. That's very unusual for a 1940s movie...heck, it's unusual for any movie. Capra and Riskin realized that they had a great situation....they just didn't know how to end it. They didn't want to show Gary Cooper killing himself....audiences back then wouldn't have liked it, and I'm sure the Production Code would have had something to say about it.
Typically in a Capra film the hero is brought to the lowest point of despair, and then, through his own individual actions, fights back and wins the day. In MEET JOHN DOE, Long John tries to fight back by speaking at the convention....but this time this Capra hero is heckled and cut off. MEET JOHN DOE is a Frank Capra movie where the leading man loses.
There are all sorts of stories about how Capra filmed three, four, or five different endings to MEET JOHN DOE. According to Joseph McBride's biography of Frank Capra, most of these endings were really just various editing choices. The ending that exists now has Long John going up to the top of City Hall on Christmas Eve, intending to jump. He's met there but just about every other major cast member of the film, who beg him not to do it. When a sickened Ann collaspes in his arms, telling Long John she loves him, he decides not to go through with it. As he walks past the assembled group, cradling Ann in his arms, the Bulletin editor tells Norton, "There you are, Norton...the people. Try and lick that!" It's a nice line, but it rings somewhat hollow, considering it was "the people" who put Long John on a pedestal and tore him off of it.
The actual ending of MEET JOHN DOE doesn't really work. I'm not saying that suicide is a good thing, or that it's a solution to any problem; I'm merely saying that everything in the movie leads up to it. Long John may be alive, but he will still be considered a fake to most people. His romance with Ann doesn't seem promising; he's a washed-up minor league pitcher who's more than likely never held a real job, and she's a professional woman who early on in the film has admitted that she wants money (her excuse is that she has to take care of her mother and sisters, but it soon becomes apparent it's much more than that--as the story progresses, and Ann gets more and more "bonuses" from Norton for her John Doe speechwriting, her wardrobe and hairstyles become more and more elaborate). It's doubtful that Long John and Ann would live happily ever after.
Long John is a sacrificial figure--a Christ-like figure (Christmas Eve, remember?). During the ending Ann even tells Long John that the first John Doe died for mankind nearly 2000 years ago. If Long John did jump, the movie would have been a lot more powerful.
Despite all that, MEET JOHN DOE still has plenty of highlights. There's the imaginary baseball game in Long John's hotel suite--a great piece of comic timing, and a reminder that Capra used to work on silent comedy two-reelers in the 1920s. The John Doe convention sequence is Capra at his best--it was filmed in a real stadium, Gilmore Field in Los Angeles (NOT Wrigley Field in Chicago, despite what many have written and said). The convention looks real (Capra was brilliant at large crowd scenes), and has an almost newsreel-type quality to it. It is also staged during a driving rain (Capra loved rain scenes).
As is typical in a Capra production, there's a ton of great character actors on display, including Regis Toomey, Spring Byington, Gene Lockhart, Irving Bacon, Sterling Holloway, and especially Walter Brennan as Long John's hobo friend, "The Colonel". Brennan's speech about the "heellots" is truly a memorable moment.
Gary Cooper was the only actor who could have played Long John. (You're saying James Stewart? Well...Stewart had too much nervous energy...his John Doe definitely would have jumped off the building.) When it came to "naive honest integrity", no one could touch Gary Cooper. Barbara Stanwyck is great as always....but the character of Ann Mitchell has some problems. For one thing, I think Ann isn't really in love with Long John...she's in love with her creation of John Doe (in the movie Ann admits this). It's another reason a romance between Ann & Long John would not have worked. Ann is in love with a story she has created, her idea of the perfect man. Long John is just playing that role.
MEET JOHN DOE is a very good film, but it is not a great one. The ending is the main reason why, but in this film Capra and his long-time screenwriter Robert Riskin preach a bit too much (nearly every major character in the story gets a to perform a long speech). What MEET JOHN DOE does say about the media, the American political system, and the manipulation of the average citizen still holds up today. Sometimes a misfire by a great film director can be more interesting than one of his best efforts. The best thing about MEET JOHN DOE is that it makes the viewer think....and that's a rare thing these days.
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Author Michael A. Hoey happens to be the son of character actor Dennis Hoey, who is best known for portraying Inspector Lestrade in the Universal Pictures series of Sherlock Holmes films. Hoey's book on the Holmes series, SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE FABULOUS FACES, is a favorite of mine, and his new book covers the life of classic Hollywood film director Norman Taurog.
Norman Taurog may not be a famous name, even to most film buffs, but his resume certainly should be well known. Taurog won an Academy Award for Best Direction for the 1931 movie SKIPPY, starring his nephew by marriage, Jackie Cooper. He also directed Spencer Tracy in his Oscar-winning role as Father Flanagan in BOYS TOWN. It's easier to list who Taurog didn't work with instead of those he did. Among the stars who appeared under Taurog's direction: W. C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, Robert Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Deanna Durbin, Cary Grant, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, and many, many others.
Because of Taurog's success with SKIPPY, he gained a reputation for dealing with younger actors and for light comedy. Hoey documents that Taurog could handle just about any assignment, and his reliability and professionalism enabled the director to earn a contract with MGM during the studio's height.
Of course any book with the title ELVIS' FAVORITE DIRECTOR is going to involve the King. Taurog directed more Elvis Presley films than anyone else (nine in all, including such favorites as G. I. BLUES and BLUE HAWAII). Hoey (who worked on a number of the Taurog-Elvis features) presents Elvis as shy, hardworking, and polite....maybe too polite when it came to his manager, Col. Tom Parker. Hoey voices the opinion that it was Parker who was responsible for the mediocre features Elvis starred in during the mid-1960s.
One of the nice things about ELVIS' FAVORITE DIRECTOR is that it is not a "tell-all" book...there's very little wild gossip. Hoey discusses the somewhat difficult temperaments of stars such as Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis, and Mario Lanza, but only in the context of showing how patient Taurog was in dealing with them and still making sure the job got done.
ELVIS' FAVORITE DIRECTOR: The Amazing 52-Year Career of Taurog is published by Bear Manor Media, an excellent company that publishes several great film-related books. Bear Manor is somewhat comparable to McFarland Books, except that Bear Manor's products are affordable enough for the working-class film fan.
Obviously the main selling point of ELVIS' FAVORITE DIRECTOR is.....Elvis Presley, but there's way more to the volume than that. Norman Taurog may not have been on the level of a John Ford or a Howard Hawks, but his long and varied Hollywood career should hold more than enough interest for any major film buff.