Merry Christmas to all! And to all a good movie on DVD!
With the opening of Tim Burton's film version of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd this past weekend, it's time for my third and final dissertation on the evolution of the movie musical.
I left off in 1978 with the dismal screen adaptation of another Sondheim classic, A Little Night Music, which was pretty much the death knell of the traditional Broadway-to-Hollywood musical that soared so majestically for more than two decades with such sublime entertainments as The King and I, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Oliver! and Cabaret.
If A Little Night Music was an artistic and commercial failure, Grease which was also released in 1978, was at least a commercial success. Artistically it catered to the undemanding, easily entertained masses. Never mind that the dancers' feet were cut off for most of the musical numbers, it was the chance to see a more contemporary musical with John Travolta fresh from his Oscar-nominated performance in Saturday Night Fever starring opposite 1970s pop star Olivia Newton-John.
A better example of contemporary music on screen was Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz, a documentary of the last concert given by The Band. There had been concert films before, but with the notable exception of 1970's Woodstock and one or two others, they usually played small theatres for a week or two if they got distribution at all. This one, because it had a hot-name director helming it, was given major distribution and played to packed houses. Co-produced by Scorsese and The Band's Robbie Robertson, the film also contained performances by such artists as Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris and Muddy Waters.
The best musical of 1978 was The Buddy Holly Story, about the short life of the legendary rock 'n' roll singer from Lubbock, Texas, who was killed in a plane crash in 1959 at the age of 22. Gary Busey won a richly deserved Oscar nomination for his electrifying portrayal of Holly. Charlie Martin Smith and Don Stroud were outstanding as members of his band.
Musical comedy was all but dead now. The emphasis for the next three decades would be on musical drama and fantasy.
Critics were split over which film was the best musical of 1979. Most favored Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, which won four Oscars and another five nominations. The feat is incredible for a film that is mostly about the hallucinations of a womanizing, drug abusing dancer while he is undergoing open heart surgery. Oscar-nominated Roy Scheider is obviously playing Fosse, which made the film seem immediate for many, but it's a rough going all the way.
The film that should have gotten greater recognition was Milos Forman's Hair. Unfortunately the Flower Power Broadway musical of the late 1960s was considered passé by audiences who ignored it. It was their misfortune. While the film retains most of the original score, the story was almost completely re-written. The central characters are now an uptight Army enlistee and a free-spirited hippie, played by John Savage and Treat Williams, who end up switching places when the enlistee is ordered to Viet Nam. The real star of the film, though, is Twyla Tharp whose amazing choreography continuously dazzles with even the horses stepping to the beat.
The third major musical of 1979 was The Rose, a thinly-disguised fictional account of the life and death of Janis Joplin with Bette Midler singing her heart out in an Oscar-nominated performance.
Released early in 1980, the popularity of Coal Miner's Daughter proved strong enough for Sissy Spacek to win every major award for her portrayal of country legend, Loretta Lynn. Nominated for a total of seven Oscars, Spacek's win was its only one. The film, which holds up considerably well today, also features fine performances by Tommy Lee Jones as Lynn's husband, Levon Helm of The Band as her coal miner dad and Beverly D'Angelo as Patsy Cline. Legend has it that Spacek had some of D'Angelo's best scenes cut for fear D'Angelo would steal the film from her.
Another immensely popular 1980 musical was Fame, set in New York's famed High School of the Performing Arts. Nominated for six Oscars, it won two, for best score and best song, the exuberant title tune put across by diminutive Irene Cara and the cast. The film spawned an even more successful TV series that ran for five years beginning in 1982.
Ray Sharkey won a Golden Globe as Best Actor - Musical or Comedy for The Idolmaker and the film itself was nominated for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy. A thinly-disguised fictional account of the 1950s rise of pop idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian, newcomers Paul Land and Peter Gallagher played the singers. Sharkey was their manager.
The rest of 1980's musical output included the long forgotten Honeysuckle Rose with Willie Nelson as a washed up country singer, One Trick Pony with Paul Simon as a rock star in decline, the third film version of The Jazz Singer with Neil Diamond and Laurence Olivier hamming it up as Diamond's disapproving father, and an utter piece of drivel called Xanadu. The latter, whose plot defies description, was so bad it put an immediate end to the career of the legendary Gene Kelly while doing no good for any of his co-stars including Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck.
1981's modestly successful Pennies From Heaven with Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken, set in depression era Chicago, was noticed enough to garner three Oscar nominations and win Peters a Golden Globe.
Dolly Parton sashayed and Burt Reynolds smirked his way through the 1982 film version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a delight on Broadway but nothing special on screen with much of the music and all the heartfelt acting of Carlin Glynn and Henderson Forsythe missing.
John Huston's dreadful direction of Annie proved he had no business going anywhere near a musical. Though Albert Finney could do no wrong as Daddy Warbucks, Carol Burnett threw the whole thing off kilter by making her portrayal of Miss Hannigan look like just another one of her TV parodies. Annie and the rest of the orphans were not especially appealing either. The show was done to perfection for TV in 1989 with a superb cast headed by Kathy Bates as Hannigan.
The best musical of 1982, by far, was Victor/Victoria, based on an obscure 1933 German film. It was a throwback, in a good way, to the screwball comedies of that era. It was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Actress (Julie Andrews), Best Supporting Actor (Robert Preston) and Best Supporting Actress (Lesley Ann Warren). It won only one, for the Henry Mancini-Leslie Bricusse score. Andrews as a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman while falling in love with James Garner, and Preston as a drag queen who could pass for Marie Dressler, are a constant delight. Andrews reprised the role in a Broadway version some thirteen years later.
Though essentially a drama, 1983's Tender Mercies was nevertheless about the world of country music centering on the relationship between a has-been country singer and his estranged daughter, still struggling to make it in the business. Nominated for five Academy Awards, it won for Best Actor (Robert Duvall) and Best Original Screenplay (Horton Foote).
A genuine, foot-stomping, old-time musical with a difference was 1984's Footloose. The difference was that the music was for the most part pre-recorded and played on the radio for the cast to dance to. Two of its songs, "Let's Hear It for the Boy" and the title tune were nominated for Oscars. Kevin Bacon starred as the new kid in town and Lori Singer and Chris Penn made nice impressions as his friends. On the downside, John Lithgow's portrayal of a hellfire and brimstone minister was a casebook study in overacting.
Richard Gere, Gregory Hines and Diane Lane starred in 1984's deadly dull The Cotton Club about the lively Harlem Institution, one of many duds directed by Francis Ford Coppola after his last critically-praised film, 1979's Apocalypse Now.
Richard Attenborough, who made his directorial debut with 1969's great anti-war musical, Oh! What a Lovely War, returned to the genre to prove he had completely lost his touch. His 1985 film of the landmark Broadway musical, A Chorus Line, just lies there when it should soar. Even so, it must have impressed the Academy's sound department, as they gave it two Oscar nominations. It was also nominated for Best Original Song, for the forgettable "Surprise, Surprise".
After the phenomenal success of Coal Miner's Daughter, it was inevitable that someone would want to make the Patsy Cline story into a film. They did, but whereas great pains were taken to make Coal Miner's Daughter accurate, 1985's Sweet Dreams was a haphazardly put together mess. The story, which largely takes place in the 1950s, uses Patsy's music from the early 1960s. The portrayals of Patsy, her family and her friends were widely criticized at the time for being totally out of touch with reality. Despite all that, Jessica Lange managed to receive an Oscar nomination as Patsy, though for my money Beverly D'Angelo was closer to the real Patsy in Coal Miner's Daughter.
Proving to be an unexpected delight, 1987's Dirty Dancing came out of nowhere in August of that year and has remained popular ever since. It propelled Patrick Swayze to major stardom, which sadly didn't last very long but gave him plenty of mileage while it did. His leading lady, Jennifer Grey, Oscar winner Joel Grey's daughter, wasn't as lucky. It was her only major film role. A pre-Law & Order Jerry Orbach had one of his few major film roles as Jennifer's dad in this charming borsht belt musical. It won a Best Song Oscar for the infectious "(I've Had) The Time of My Life".
Following in the footsteps of The Buddy Holly Story almost a decade later, 1987's La Bamba followed the life of Richie Valens, another young singer killed in the same plane crash that took Holly's life. It made stars of Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales as his brother.
Disney stepped into the void created by the absence of live film musicals with the Broadway-style music of its animated 1989 release, The Little Mermaid. Based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, this delightful film with music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, was nominated for Oscars for its score and two of its songs, "Kiss the Girl" and "Under the Sea", winning for the latter. It was the first of many such films from Disney over the next decade and spawned a TV series and an upcoming live Broadway version.
If The Little Mermaid set the stage,Disney's 1981 entry, Beauty and the Beast, commanded it. A perfect blend of story, animation and music, the oft-told tale was perfectly voiced by Paige O'Hara as Belle, Robby Benson as the Beast, Richard White as Gaston, Jerry Orbach as Lumière, David Ogden Stiers as Cosgsworth, Rex Everhart as Muariced, and the one-and-only Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Potts, who gets to sing the glorious title song. Beauty and the Beast became the first, and thus far, only animated film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. It was nominated for a total of six, winning two for Alan Menken's score, and his and Howard Ashman's title song. It became a long-running Broadway show three years later.
Following the success of Beauty and the Beast Disney gave us Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules and Mulan before returning to non-musical animation in recent years.
Tina Turner's turbulent life was the basis for 1993's What's Love Got to Do With It? Though the title is taken from her triumphant 1984 comeback hit, the film is largely centered on her earlier life, particularly her relationship with abusive husband Ike. Both Angela Bassett as Tina and Laurence Fishburne as Ike received Oscar nominations for their amazing performances.
Australia gave usthe 1994 surprise hit, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, about two drag queens and a pre-op transsexual on the road in a gaudily-painted van in Australia's outback country. The actors, Terence Stamp, Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce, lip sync marvelously to one pop song hit after another. The film won an Oscar for costume design. Stamp was nominated for a BAFTA and both Stamp and Weaving were nominated for Australian Film Institute awards.
The long-awaited film version of Broadway's Evita arrived in 1996 with Madonna in the title role, Antonio Banderas as Che and Jonathan Pryce as Juan Peron. The film was nominated for five Oscars including its gorgeous cinematography and art direction. It won for best song, the newly written "You Must Love Me". The Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera may be a matter of taste, but there's no denying that pop idol Madonna gives her best screen performance as the First Lady of Argentina.
I still can't get over the outrageous enthusiasm of some over 2001's Moulin Rouge!, a lame, anachronistic updating of La Bohme. Utilizing music that hadn't yet been written, sung by tone-deaf Nicole Kidman and others, the film is a mess from beginning to end. Yet it charmed enough Oscar voters to earn eight nominations including those for Kidman, self-indulgent director Baz Luhrmann and the film itself. It won for art direction and costume design, both of which were co-awarded to Catherine Martin, Mrs. Luhrmann. How sweet!
The 2002 film version of the 1975 Broadway musical Chicago had been long in the planning stage. The successful 1997 Broadway revival helped bring it to fruition. With a screenplay by Bill Condon who had won an Oscar for writing 1998's Gods and Monsters and direction by Rob Marshall, who had done wonders with the 1989 TV version of Annie, the film was one delightful surprise from beginning to end. Marshall even got a welcome animated performance from the usually stiff Richard Gere. The film was nominated for 13 Oscars and won 6 including Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actress (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Renee Zellweger, John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah had to content themselves with nominations.
In the wake of Chicagowe were led to expect a renaissance of the musical, but many of the promised films never materialized. Of those that did, most were pretty bad with2004's The Phantom of the Opera, De-Lovely and Beyond the Sea being especially painful to sit through.
The Phantom of the Opera, based on the long-running London and Broadway success, was all show and no substance. De-Lovely was a stylized biography of legendary composer Cole Porter with Kevin Kline that made us yearn for Cary Grant in the earlier, flawed, but easy-to-digest, Night and Day. Beyond the Sea was beyond redemption with a too-old Kevin Spacey pretending to be his real life idol, singer Bobby Darin. Only the year's fourth major musical, Ray, a biography of singer Ray Charles, proved worthwhile. Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for his dead-on impersonation and the film itself was nominated for a total of six, also winning for Best Sound Mixing.
The following year, the dreary Rent and the silly musical remake of The Producers proved as uninviting as the prior year's Broadway-to-Hollywood transfer of The Phantom of the Opera, while another singer's biography, Walk the Line, about the life of Johnny Cash, proved to be the only musical worth remembering. The film was nominated for five Oscars including Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix as Cash. Only Reese Witherspoon as Cash's second wife, June Carter, won.
Bill Condon was given his choice of musicals to direct after his successful penning of the Chicago script. Throughout 2006 his dream project, Dreamgirls, was heralded as the one to beat at the Oscars. Unfortunately by the time the film premiered at Christmastime, the thin story and less-than-exhilarating score failed to live up to the hype. Although the film did receive eight Oscar nominations it was left out of the Best Picture and Director races. It did win two Oscars, one for that old standby, Sound Mixing, and one for Jennifer Hudson's triumphant debut performance as Effie, the one who gets to sing the musical's most powerful numbers, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" and "I Am Changing".
The unpretentious Once, released last week, is about a Dublin street musician and a Czech immigrant piano player who team up to write a few songs. It's a sweet little movie that some people are wildly-enthusiastic about. I'm still trying to figure out why.
2007's major DVD release calendar ends with David Cronenberg's decidedly non-musical Eastern Promises.
Cronenberg has been making films for more than forty years. Though the bulk of his work has been in the horror genre, he made a critically acclaimed move in the direction of gangster films with 2005's The History of Violence. Though not quite as compelling, his latest filmfollows in that vein. History's Viggo Mortensen is once again his protagonist and he's terrific as a member of the Russian mob in London who is not exactly what he seems. Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl lend strong support and Sinead Cusack, whose husband Jeremy Irons memorably played evil twin doctors in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers,has a featured role as Watts' mother. It's a highly enjoyable film, but it's not for the faint of heart. Cronenberg may have switched genres, but Eastern Promises is as bloody and gruesome in parts as any of his previous work.
See you in 2008.
-Peter J. Patrick (December 25, 2007)
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Finally! I now have my copy of the Ford at Fox box set. It is the DVD collection of the year, and well worth waiting for, but I have to caution that it is not for everyone. The casual collector will probably be satisfied with the previously available Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and My Darling Clementine, and perhaps a few of the other 19 titles, most likely The Prisoner of Shark Island and Wee Willie Winkie. The rest of the titles are for serious film buffs and historians who want to delve further into Ford.
It will take me a while to get through it all, but thus far I have seen the restored versions of Drums Along the Mohawk and My Darling Clementine, both of which are breathtaking. I've also managed to see a few Ford films I'd either never seen or seen so long ago I'd forgotten much about them.
Although Ford had directed more than fifty films by the time he saw F.W. Murnau's Sunrisein 1927, he was so taken with the German impressionistic filmmaker's work that it was to influence all of his future work. Though the touches would become more subtle over the years, his copying of Murnau's style is clearly evident in Four Sons, made almost immediately after Ford saw Sunrise and is filmed on some of the same sets.
The early establishing scenes of Four Sons may remind today's viewers of the long opening scenes of such later films as The Godfather and The Deer Hunter. Ford takes a long time getting to the point, but everything Ford does has a purpose. There is a reason for those early scenes of happy, innocent townspeople in a Bavaria looking more like it belonged in a production of The Student Prince than in a war movie. The innocence will be shattered soon enough, for this 1928 war movie is very much an anti-war movie in the vein of King Vidor's The Big Parade in 1925, a cycle that would reach its zenith with three 1930 films, Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front, James Whale's Journey's End and Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol.
The anti-war message is just part of what Ford is up to in Four Sons. At its heart is Ford's basic theme of the intrusion of outside forces on the comforts of home and family. It also touches on immigration in a manner that would be copied somewhat by the Swedish epics, The Emigrants and The New Land more than forty years later. For those in the small German town of the film, America is the land of opportunity where the streets are paved with gold. For one son of the film's central character, a beloved little old lady, life in the States has indeed been fortunate. That's not the case with the three brothers he left behind or his darling mother who hasn't heard from him since the World War broke out.
There are many unforgettable scenes that take place during the war, from the delivery of the first black-bordered telegram that devastates the family to the death of a soldier two days before the armistice. The film then shifts focus and deals with the confusion of the emigrants at Ellis Island and in the vast caverns of New York City. It all ends happily though, with the uniting of three generations.
Mann had one of her uncredited bit parts in Pilgrimage, Ford's 1933 film about another old lady, a not-so-loving Arkansas mother who has her son drafted in order to break up his romance with a young girl she feels isn't good enough for him. Even after he is killed, she refuses to have anything to do with the girl or the girl's son, her own grandson. One day she is unexpectedly gifted with a trip, along with other mothers of sons killed in the war, to the French cemetery where he is buried. It is on that trip, that she meets another young man and a girl in similar circumstances as her son's and sees the errors of her ways.
Like Four Sons, Pilgrimage is filled with German expressionistic touches. The small Arkansas town where the characters of Pilgrimage lived might just as well have been over the hill from the town in Bavaria where the family of Four Sons dwelled. What is unusual about it is that the mother, a saintly figure in most Ford films, is mean and cold for most of the film.
The mother in Pilgrimage is played by then 71-year-old veteran stage actress Henrietta Crosman, best known on screen as the matriarch in The Royal Family of Broadway and later as Warner Oland's seemingly foolish friend in Charlie Chan's Secret. It's the kind of role that a Helen Hayes or Bette Davis might have played in their later years had it been remade.
Widely regarded as Shirley Temple's best film, Ford's Wee Willie Winkie is his entry in the British Raj films that were so popular in the 1930s. Released exactly halfway between 1935's The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and 1939's Gunga Din, the film, like Gunga Din, is taken from a story by Rudyard Kipling. In it, Temple and her widowed mother come to live under the protection of British regimental leader played by Sir C. Aubrey Smith. The film deals with the familial relationship between Temple and Smith, as well as her mother's romance with a brash young captain and the threat of attack by rebel Indians led by Cesar Romero. The film has been restored to its original length in two versions, one a handsome black and white print, the other a restoration of the sepia print of the film's original. Since the restoration was made from several sources, there are a few minutes in the sepia version where the tone shifts to black and white. It's rather jarring. Stick with the black and white which is easier on modern eyes anyway.
The strangest film Ford ever directed, 1941's Tobacco Road, was taken from the sensationalistic Broadway play that was itself taken from the even more sensationalistic best seller by Erskine Caldwell. No other director of the day could have gotten away with the sexual innuendoes and outright lasciviousness that Ford does. Charley Grapewin is the lazy, no account Georgia farmer who pimps one daughter after another to "son-in-law" Ward Bond whose "wives" (all of them Grapewin's daughters) keep running off. Marjorie Rambeau is the horny, middle-aged preacher woman who lusts after Grapewin's twenty-year-old nitwit son (William Tracy) who she then marries. Elizabeth Patterson is Grapewin's long-suffering wife and Gene Tierney is his last remaining daughter, deemed too old by Bond at 23 to make a good wife. The best thing about the film is the gorgeous cinematography by Arthur Miller who would go on to greater heights with Ford's next film, How Green Was My Valley.
Ford's penultimate film for Fox, 1950's When Willie Comes Marching Home, starts out as a variation on Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero, but soon turns into something darker. Dan Dailey is the eager-to-serve soldier who is the first from his New Jersey town to enlist the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hailed at first as a hero by the town, the whole town, including his parents, turn nasty when, through no fault of his own, he is forced to remain at a local air base as an expert trainer while other sons of the town are put in harm's way. He proves a hero on a secret mission in France, but is unable to talk about it. This is another unusual film in the Ford canon in that the parents, played by Sturges regulars William Demarest and Evelyn Varden are not the ideal parents of most Ford films. Ford had much more success at the box office with his next film, Republic's Rio Grandein which John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara are truer to the Ford ideal as the bickering but loving parents of Claude Jarman Jr.
The new biography, Becoming John Ford, doesn't really tell us much we don't already know about the contrarian Ford, a true visionary behind the camera, but a mean drunk when not working. It covers his love-hate relationships with Daryl Zanuck, Henry Fonda and others, and provides ample scenes from his principal Fox films, The Iron Horse, Four Sons, Pilgrimage, The Prisoner of Shark Island, Wee Willie Winkie, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and My Darling Clementine. What is new is the extensive coverage his World War II service. As a bonus, the disc includes his Oscar winning wartime documentaries, The Battle of Midway and December 7th as well as Torpedo Squadron. It also includes additional footage filmed for The Battle of Midway. The version of December 7th is the shortened Oscar winning version, not the full-length film which is available elsewhere as I mentioned last week.
Among the new films released on DVD is The Bourne Ultimatum, from the novel by Robert Ludlum. I read most of Ludlum's novels in the 1970s and 1980s before losing interest in him. Sadly, I've never been impressed with any of the films made from those novels. The Bourne Ultimatum is no exception. Hailed by critics and audiences alike, the film, to my mind, is one soulless chase scene after another as it goes around the world from Moscow to Morocco to New York. Director Paul Greengrass' style is cold and frenetic and this film, like his Oscar-nominated United 93, is wildly over-praised.
Matt Damon is as believable as the script allows, but this is not one of his most memorable performances, though he certainly holds his own against a host of co-stars including Julia Styles, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Joan Allen, Paddy Considine and Albert Finney, all of whom deserve a better script.
Just in time for Christmas, comes the heartwarming Australian film, December Boys, about four orphans vying to be adopted by the same family. This charming coming-of-age story was barely given an international theatrical release in September. It probably would have escaped notice entirely if it weren't for the fact that it stars Daniel Radcliffe in his first non-Harry Potter role since 2001's The Tailor of Panama. Radcliffe, a last-minute replacement for Freddie Highmore, is terrific as the oldest of the boys who has long since given up hope of ever being adopted. Beautifully filmed on Australia's Kangaroo Island, the central story takes place in the late 1960s but contains a lovely epilogue set in the present day. Warner Bros. is releasing it on DVD in conjunction with the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It's well worth checking out.
Until next time, keep on looking for good movies on DVD.
-Peter J. Patrick (December 18, 2007)
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I still haven't received my copy of the massive Ford at Fox collection so I'm unable to review the films that are included in the set, but I can tell you what's in it and what's not.
Ford's career at Fox took off with 1924's The Iron Horse, a blockbuster about the westward expansion caused by the building of the railroad. It was the 50th film he directed in seven years. While there have been other films on the subject since, this one, which has been restored and scored for the collection, was the first.
Ford steadily made films for Fox through 1941, though for a period from 1934 through 1941 he also made six films at RKO and one at Columbia. After his World War II service for the Navy Department he made They Were Expendable for MGM in 1945, My Darling Clementine for Fox in 1946 and subsequently made films for RKO, Republic, Warner Bros., Columbia, MGM, United Artists and Paramount, returning to Fox just once more.
Many of Ford's fellow directors as well as film historians and just plain folk consider him the greatest director in the history of the movies. I personally consider The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, two films made at Fox and included in the set, to not only be his two greatest films, but the two greatest films of all time. Both deal with subjects specific to their time, but shine a light on situations that haven't changed in the nearly 70 years since the films were made.
1940's The Grapes of Wrath is specifically about the Great Depression, most specifically about the people of the dust bowl of Oklahoma who were uprooted and forced to find work elsewhere. Today's migrant workers are more apt to be emigrants, both legal and illegal from Mexico and South America but the problems they face remain largely the same.
1941's How Green Was My Valley is specifically about the people of a Welsh coal mining town at the turn of the 20th Century, but it could be set in any coal mining town in Appalachia. Safety issues and poverty in those towns are not much different than they were in the Wales of over a hundred years ago.
Aside from the great social messages conveyed by these two films, they are essentially about family, both specific family units and the larger family of man to which we all belong. Everything about them, the writing, acting, cinematography, musical scoring and more, is first rate. How Green Was My Valley gets a bum rap in certain quarters because it was the film that beat Citizne Kane for the Oscar. Both are great films, but while Kane may have been the more innovative, Valley is the more emotionally involving.
Kane also gets extra points from the print journalists who keep voting it the greatest film of all time because of lore surrounding the making of the film. It was a thinly disguised biography of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst who tried to suppress the film, refused to carry ads for it in any of his newspapers or allow critics for those newspapers to review it. Hearst's main objection was the vilification of his mistress, actress Marion Davies. Orson Welles admitted many years later that the one thing he regretted about the film was the way he treated the Davies character. At the time of the making of the film, though, Welles was a great Ford supporter. When asked to name the three greatest directors he said "John Ford, John Ford and John Ford."
I have yet to see Ford's silent films or early talkies so I cannot comment on them. The earliest Ford film I've seen is 1931's Arrowsmith which has been available for several years. The earliest one I've seen in this collection is 1933's Pilgrimage. This underrated gem features a magnificent performance by Henrietta Crosman (The Royal Family of Broadway, Charlie Chan's Secret) in a story of atonement as affecting as the current film of that name.
Three of Ford's 1934-1936 films, The Lost Patrol, The Informer (for which he won his first Oscar) and Mary of Scotland were made for RKO and are included in the Films of John Ford collection released last year by Warner Bros. The Whole Town's Talking, made for Columbia was previously available on VHS, and The Plough and the Stars, made for RKO, has never been released on home video.
Ford's films for Fox, during this period, include Judge Priest and Steamboat Round the Bend, both with Will Rogers; The Prisoner of Shark Island about the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth after the assignation of President Lincoln; and Wee Willie Winkie with Shirley Temple. All are included in the collection. Judge Priest and The Prisoner of Shark Island have been available on DVD in region 2, but not region 1. Both have been re-mastered with improved picture and sound for this collection. The Prisoner of Shark Island is one of Ford's best films, with great performances by Warner Baxter in the title role and John Carradine as a hateful prison guard who becomes one of Dr. Mudd's biggest champions.
Steamboat Round the Bend was recently released as part of Fox's Will Rogers Collection, Volume 1, so it's safe to assume it's the same disc. Wee Willie Winkie has previously only been available on VHS. It wasn't even made available on DVD in region 2 where all of Shirley Temple's other Fox films have been released.
Also from this period, and included in the collection, are three films I either haven't seen or saw so long ago I don't remember them. They are The World Moves On, a sort of American version of Cavalcade that takes Madeline Carroll and Franchot Tone from the Civil War through the Great Depression; Four Men and a Prayer r, a Four Feathers-type tale of lost honor with Loretta Young, Richard Greene, George Sanders and David Niven; and Submarine Patrol, a World War I drama with Richard Greene, Nancy Kelly and Preston Foster.
Ford's great period began with 1939's Stagecoach, an RKO film that was part of last year's Warner Bros. collection, for which he won his second directing Oscar nomination. Also released as part of that set was 1940's The Long Voyage Home. Included in the Fox collection are 1939's Drums Along the Mohawk and Young Mr. Lincoln, as well the previously-mentioned The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley and the previously-unavailable Tobacco Road from 1941.
Fox has restored the previously released Drums Along the Mohawk to greater brilliance. This film, with Claudette Colbert, Henry Fonda and Edna May Oliver in her only Oscar-nominated performance, usually gets passed over on lists of Ford's greatest films, but it is one of his most assured, effortless mixing of comedy and drama. The scene in which a screaming Oliver is carried against her will from her burning home is horrific and terribly moving, but also quite funny in the way Oliver plays it.
The discs of Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath are the restored versions. In fact, the disc of Young Mr. Lincoln carries the Criterion logo as it is actually the first disc in Criterion's Special Edition of the film released just last year
Young Mr. Lincoln is a leisurely-paced tale of the early life of the president-to-be, culminating in a sensational murder trial in which young Abe, played by Henry Fonda in his first collaboration with Ford, must trap the real killer in order to save his clients, two brothers each of whom thinks the other committed the murder. Fonda makes a terrific young Abe, folksy, yet urbane; of the people, yet apart; someone for whom you sense great things lie ahead - both for the real life character and the actor who plays him.
I have been unable to determine if How Green Was My Valley has been given yet another restoration. It had been given a cleaned up second release.
While we're on the subject of great performances, Valley has a slew of them. It includes Donald Crisp, who won an Oscar as the patriarch of the Welsh coal mining family; Sara Allgood, who should have won one as the matriarch; Roddy McDowall, who should have gotten one of those special children's Oscars as the youngest child of the family whose grown character is the film's narrator; Walter Pidgeon as the town minister, Maureen O'Hara as the family's only girl; and Anna Lee, who also does the film's commentary, as the eldest son's wife. Ford won his third best director Oscar.
Tobacco Road is the only Ford film of this period I've never seen in its entirety. A raucous comedy in the mold of God's Little Acre, it stars Charley Grapewin, Marjorie Rambeau, Gene Tierney, Elizabeth Patterson and Dana Andrews.
Ford joined the Navy shortly after the outbreak of World War II, for which he made several documentaries and shorts. Two of these won Oscars generally credited to Ford. Technically they were given to the films, not the director. Both the documentary, The Battle of Midway, and the short, December 7th, are available on DVD. The version of the latter that won the Oscar was 20 minutes long, but it has been restored to a feature length 82 minutes for its DVD release.
Ford's first post-war film, They Were Expendable, which was made for MGM, has long been available on DVD.
Ford's last film during his principal relationship with Fox was 1946's My Darling Clementine, included in this collection. Previously available on DVD, this is a newly restored print of the western about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, played by Henry Fonda and Victor Mature.
This marked a return to the western for Ford, who would win even more acclaim for the westerns he made outside of Fox during the next few years such as 3 Godfathers and the cavalry trilogy: Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande. These are all available on DVD. Still missing are The Fugitive and Wagon Master.
Ford's inauspicious return to Fox in 1952 was for the disappointing remake of What Price Glory with James Cagney, Dan Dailey and Corinne Calvet. It is included in the collection. This film was previously available. I'm unable to determine if the included disc is a restoration or not.
Fortunately for Ford, he made another film in 1952 for Republic called The Quiet Man, which won him his fourth Oscar as best director.
Though he subsequently won a National Board of Review award for directing The Last Hurrah and DGA (Directors Guild of America) nominations for The Long Gray Line, Mister Roberts, The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers, all of which are available on DVD, he was never again nominated for an Oscar. He was awarded the first life achievement award given by the American Film Institute in 1973.
The rip-off of 2007 has to be Paramount's Titanic 10th Anniversary Edition which contains the first two discs of last year's Three-Disc Special Collector's Edition. Originally retailing at $30, Amazon is now selling the 3-disc set for $9 vs. $15 for the 2 disc set.
Another re-issue is Fox's 30th Anniversary Edition of New York, New York but at least this one comes with an added disc of not-especially-illuminating documentaries on the making of the film including the reminiscences of Liza Minnelli. The best thing about it is the DVD cover art which reproduces Al Hirschfeld's 1977 drawings of Minnelli and Robert De Niro.
Anyone still waiting for Liza to reprise mother Judy Garland's famed Carnegie Hall concert can forget it. It's been done, not by Liza, but by the grandson of Judy's Hollywood neighbor, Loudon Wainwright II, long time editor of Life Magazine. Judy and Loudon's children, Liza and Loudon III, were the same age and Loudon had a huge crush on Liza. He was devastated when she moved away at 13. Flash forward a few years and Loudon is a major folk rock star as is his wife, Kate McGarrigle of the duo, Kate and Anna McGarrigle. Growing up singing to Kate's copy of the legendary recording of 1961's Judy at Carnegie Hall, their singer-songwriter son, Rufus Wainwright, has come full circle.
Rufus does full justice to the great songs and Judy's memory on both the CD of Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall and the DVD of the extended London version of the concert, Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy! Live from the London Palladium. Anyone expecting camp can forget it, this is a full on tribute performed with great affection. Not only does the CD and DVD include every song Judy sang in the original, the DVD also includes five encores of Judy's songs not done in that particular concert.
Joining Rufus are sister Martha Wainwright, mother Kate McGarrigle and Judy's other daughter, Lorna Luft. Martha does a haunting version of "Stormy Weather" that's more Lena Horne than Judy Garland, but that's perfectly fine. Kate accompanies Rufus on piano as he sings Judy's signature song, "Over the Rainbow" and Lorna joins him on "After You've Gone". All three are back for the Palladium encores which include "Get Happy", "Someone to Watch Over Me" and "Every Time We Say Goodbye".
Changing gears completely, if you liked the sentimental gross-out comedies, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, chances are you'll like the latest film from the same folks called Superbad. With the ages of the characters in Judd Apatow's films going from middle-age to young adulthood to late teens, you have to wonder if his next film will be about the bathroom habits of nine- and ten-year-olds.
I'll be back next week with reviews of new films on DVD and in two weeks with the third and final installment of my series on film musicals.
-Peter J. Patrick (December 11, 2007)
Buy on DVD!
I had hoped to review the massive Ford at Fox collection this week. Unfortunately, I have been unable to get my grubby little hands on a copy of the collection that releases today. What I can tell you is that it contains 24 films including the documentary Becoming John Ford. I can also tell you that most of the films in the collection are new to DVD, the centerpiece of which is a lovingly restored and scored presentation of 1924's The Iron Horse, the film that put Ford on the map. What I can't tell you how the new transfers of such previously released titles as The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley and My Darling Clementine stack up against their previous incarnations. Hopefully I will have more information by this time next week.
Also being released today by Fox is the Bob Hope Movie Collection. While of considerably lesser interest than the Ford collection, the fact that Fox is releasing these films at all is cause for celebration in that it signals hope that they will open their vaults even further to release some of the better films from Fox and MGM (post-1990 MGM titles as well as old United Artists and Samuel Goldwyn titles) they control.
MGM switched its distribution deal from Sony to Fox late last year. This is significant because Sony was never a great supporter of classic films, certainly not in the sense that Fox is.
Included in the Hope collection are four new-to-DVD titles: They Got Me Covered, Alias Jesse James, The Facts of Life and Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! Also included are the previously-available The Princess and the Pirate, The Road to Hong Kong and I'll Take Sweden /em>.
The best of the new releases is The Facts of Life, which was nominated for five Academy Awards and won one (for costume design). It's a fairly agreeable sophisticated comedy about a married man and the wife of his best friend who are thrown together though happenstance. They enter into a clandestine relationship, but this being 1960, do not consummate their affair. Hope is the man and Lucille Ball, in her first role since splitting up with Desi Arnaz, is the woman. Ruth Hussey and Don DeFore are their clueless spouses. It is directed by Melvin Frank ( A Touch of Class).
1943's They Got Me Covered is fairly agreeable fluff about a reporter uncovering a Nazi ring in Washington, D.C. in the midst of World War II. Hope's co-stars include Dorothy Lamour, Otto Preminger, Eduardo Ciannelli, Philip Ahn, Donald Meek, Donald MacBride and Florence Bates. It was directed by David Butler ( Calamity Jane).
Released when TV shows set in the Old West were at their peak, 1959's Alias Jesse James provided Hope with a strong role as an insurance salesman who unwittingly sells a policy to the fabled outlaw Jesse James and must join the James gang to try and keep Jesse alive. Rhonda Fleming is his love interest and a rather long in the tooth Wendell Corey is Jesse James. The film features cameos from many stars of the day including Gary Cooper, Bing Crosby, Roy Rogers, James Garner, Hugh O'Brian and James Arness. It was directed by Norman Z. McLeod ( The Paleface).
1966's Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! is stuff and nonsense about a movie star on the lam and the small town real estate agent who helps her hide. Hope is the wise-cracking real estate agent, Phyllis Diller his equally wisecracking housekeeper, Elke Sommer the runaway movie star and Marjorie Lord is Hope's clueless wife. It was directed by George Marshall ( Fancy Pants).
The pick of the litter of the re-issues is 1944's The Princess and the Pirate in which Hope co-stars with Virginia Mayo, Walter Brennan, Walter Slezak and Victor McLaglen. The high seas costume comedy was directed by David Butler ( They Got Me Covered).
When Hope and Crosby made 1962's The Road to Hong Kong, their first road picture in ten years, the 47-year-old Dorothy Lamour was deemed too old for the boys, then looking hard at 60, so the producers recruited 28-year-old Joan Collins to play the female lead. Lamour had to be content with a cameo as herself. Also featuring Robert Morley, the lackluster comedy was directed by Norman Panama ( Li'l Abner).
The worst of the lot has to be 1965's I'll Take Sweden, an unfunny comedy in which Hope tries to find a new boyfriend for daughter Tuesday Weld. Also with Frankie Avalon and Dina Merrill, it was directed by Fred DeCordova ( The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson).
The DVD release of Adrienne Shelley's Waitress includes a documentary on the life of the writer-director-actress' career, which was tragically cut short by her murder last year. I wish I could report that her last film is worthy of the tribute given it. Sadly, at least for me, it is not.
The film's main asset is Keri Russell's charm, but even she can only stretch credulity so far. Why an intelligent, self-sufficient young woman would stay married to an abusive jerk (Kevin Sisto in a somewhat milder version of his Six Feet Under character) when she has other options is beyond me. So is the implausible, impractical affair the pregnant woman has with her doctor (Nathan Fillion in a pre-cursor to his current Desperate Housewives role). Not even Andy Griffith can salvage it as the stereotypical grumpy old man with a heart of gold. Russell's scrumptious looking pies, though, make you wish you were there to enjoy them.
Finally, there is a new movie on DVD to treasure. Mira Nair's The Namesake is one of the best coming-of-age films in a long time. It stars Kal Penn ( Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle) as the American-born son of Indian immigrants Irrfan Khan and Tabu, but the film is as much their story as it is his and the film's final dedication is to the parents. Taking place primarily in Bengal and New York, the film, which alternates seamlessly between Hindustani and English, is easily Nair's ( Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding) best film.
Criterion's reissue of 1938's The Lady Vanishes is an improvement over their nine-year-old first issue of the Hitchcock title, though that version, one of the first DVD releases, was itself a fairly decent re-master. One of the hallmarks of Alfred Hitchcock's British period, the film starring Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave and Dame May Whitty as passengers on train, centers around the mystery of Whitty's disappearance. It features a considerable amount of wit along with the suspense, most of it supplied by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as fellow passengers Charters and Caldicott. Radford and Wayne were to reprise those characters in three subsequent films, Night Train, Crook's Tour and Next of Kin. The droll Crook's Tour is included as an extra with this release of The Lady Vanishes.
Starz Home Entertainment's "uncut and uncensored" reissue of 1983's Bad Boys is 19 minutes longer than the old Artisan release. Director Rick Rosenthal confides that Sean Penn beat out Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise for the role in auditions by the three then up-and-coming actors. Esai Morales, Ally Shedy and Reni Santoni co-star in the reform school melodrama that holds up surprisingly well.
I'll be back next week with more on Ford at Fox...or not as the case may be.
-Peter J. Patrick (December 4, 2007)
Buy on DVD!