The DVD Report #261

When I lived in Manhattan in the 1970s I attended many films on their opening day, often spotting celebrities in the crowd. Only once, however, did I attend a premiere with the star of the film sitting to the left behind me and commenting on the film for its entire running time. The date was December 20, 1971. The almost empty theatre was the Coronet. The star was Ruth Gordon, in attendance with her husband, Garson Kanin. The film was Harold and Maude.

Critics were not kind to the film. Vincent Canby in the New York Times opined “As Harold and Maude, Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon are supposed to appear magnificently mismatched for the purposes of the comedy. They are mismatched, at least visually. Mr. Cort’s baby face and teen-age build look grotesque alongside Miss Gordon’s tiny, weazened frame.” Audiences, as Sam Goldwyn would say, stayed away in droves. Yet the film survived. It went on to become a big international hit and spawned several stage adaptations including a long-running one in Canada with Glynis Johns as Maude.

Listening to Ms. Gordon was both fascinating and annoying. The actress and playwright was no doubt one of the great ones, but she was also quite full of herself, elbowing her husband in the ribs, talking about how wonderful she was and frequently letting go with a laugh that can only be described as a snort. Yes, I could have moved, but fascination won out over annoyance.

Gordon had recently had a career resurgence with her Oscar-winning role in Rosemary’s Baby, followed by well received turns in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? and Where’s Poppa?, but she had also suffered the humiliation of having her scenes in Robert Mulligan’s The Pursuit of Happiness exorcised and re-shot with another actress (Ruth White). She needed renewed affirmation of her talent, which the film provided with a Golden Globe nomination announced January 12, 1972. But that was all the recognition she would get upon the film’s initial release.

Despite American critics’ general dismissal of the film, and Gordon’s horse-laugh, I liked it. I thought the black comedy about a suicidal twenty year-old boy and a life-loving 80 year-old woman hit all the right notes, and Cat Stevens’ songs playing throughout provided one of the best soundtracks of the era. Now almost everyone agrees.

Gordon, by the way, was not the original choice for the part. Dames Edith Evans and Gladys Cooper were preferred by Paramount, but director Hal Ashby thought Gordon would be better suited to the film’s comedy.

The newly re-mastered Criterion Edition of Harold and Maude is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD.

If John Wayne were still alive, no doubt the by now 105 year-old actor would still be making movies. His popularity has hardly waned in the thirty-three years since his death.

Wayne was born in Iowa and raised in Southern California, but his natural affinity for the Hollywood Western made him the most enduring star of that particular genre.

Wayne seemed destined for superstardom when Raoul Walsh cast him in the lead in 1930’s The Big Trail, Fox’s widescreen epic that was twenty-three years ahead of its time. Seen in Fox’s Grandeur process, the fore-runner of CinemaScope, the film is breathtaking in its majesty with stunts that still make you sit up and take notice.

The problem was the film, which went into production before the stock market crash of 1929, left theatre owners strapped at the start of the Great Depression with most of them unwilling to spend the money necessary to equip theatres with the projectors and screens necessary to accommodate the new process. The film was a hit in the few theatres that showed it in Grandeur, but the simultaneously filmed standard version shown in most theatres, which cropped the action, was a deserved flop. Wayne was relegated to B movies and serials for the next nine years until Stagecoach made him a major star.

The Big Trail is available on both Blu-ray and standard DVD with both the widescreen and standard screen versions of the film included. The standard version, which is a big letdown once you’ve seen it in Grandeur should be viewed for comparison purposes only.

The Wayne estate, which owns several of his films, and Paramount, which has released most of them on DVD, have just begun to release them on Blu-ray. Their first release is a curious one.

Hondo, which was filmed in 3-D, was released in December, 1953 at the end of the 3-D craze that had titillated audiences for a brief time. Now that 3-D is once again popular, one would think that they would have released it on Blu-ray in 3-D, but no, it’s released in two dimension. One change, however, is that the Blu-ray version is in widescreen, which previous home video releases were not.

The story about a reformed gunman helping a struggling family is similar in theme to the superior Shane which was released the same year and is still awaiting a Blu-ray upgrade from Paramount. Wayne is excellent as the half-breed reformed gunslinger, but Geraldine Page, who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a prairie widow, is merely adequate.

The Big Trail and Hondo make for an interesting double-bill, but how long will we have to wait for Wayne’s estate and Paramount to get around to releasing The High and the Mighty onBlu-ray?

Another interesting double-bill might be Olivier Assayas’ and Maggie Cheung’s Irma Vep and Clean.

Assayas only knew Hong Kong film star Cheung from her movies when he asked her in 1995 to star in Irma Vep about a Chinese actress who is asked to star in a French remake of the silent film The Vampires.

Cheung’s character in the film is named Maggie Cheung, but it’s no more a realistic a portrait of the actress than Being John Malkovich is of that actor. The film itself is a comedy about making movies in the tradition of Day for Night and as long as it concentrates on the people making the movie it’s quite wonderful. The film within the film is another matter. It gives new meaning to the term “bad movie”.

Jean-Pierre Leaud co-stars as a Jean-Luc Godard type director in the film which takes many jabs at the French New Wave.

The film is only partially sub-titled. Cheung, who was raised in England, speaks English in the film as do the other actors when speaking to her.

Assayas and Cheung were briefly married from December, 1998 to May, 2001, but have remained friends. Their post marital pairing on Clean is even better, with Cheung playing a drug addicted widow with a struggling musical career and an estranged son being raised by his paternal grandparents. Nick Nolte co-stars as the boy’s grandfather.

The film is in both French and English. Cheung, who now speaks fluent French, converses in that language in the Paris scenes of the film and English in the Canadian and London scenes and when speaking to Nolte and James Dennis as her son. Cheong won the Best Actress award for this one at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

Twilight Time continues to release limited Blu-ray editions of films, mainly from Sony and Fox.

Their latest releases are Sony’s As Good As It Gets and Fox’s The Wayward Bus.

I don’t know why Sony has chosen not release the Oscar winning As Good As It Gets to a mass market, but I suppose they know what they’re doing. Twilight Time’s presentation of the film starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear is flawless.

The lesser known Fox film, The Wayward Bus, which had previously never been released on home video in any format, is a forgotten gem.

Based on a novel by John Steinbeck, the film languished on Fox’s shelves for ten years before it was finally made into a film by relative unknown director Victor Vicas.

The film about a dust storm that wreaks havoc on a scheduled bus run is not in the same league as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, but it’s a good one.

With talent like Marlon Brando, Robert Mitchum, Susan Hayward and Jennifer Jones all passing, the film was made with a second tier cast of stars that includes Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Dan Dailey and Rick Jason.

Fourth billed Jason is actually the star of the film as the bus driver, with a deglamorized Collins as his alcoholic wife having these second lead. Both are quite good, but the real surprise here is Mansfield who proves she could act without her shimmy as a stripper trying to hide her identity from would-be suitor Dailey.

This week’s new releases include the 15th Anniversary Edition of Evita and the 20th Anniversary Edition of Newsies.

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