Joan Crawford took charge of her career as she aged out of the ingénue roles that propelled her to stardom, developing stories and pursuing properties that offered strong characters for a mature woman. She gave herself a second act when she fought hard for Mildred Pierce (1945) at Warner Bros. and seven years later, as Warner was content to sideline her as long-suffering women in second-rate projects, she took charge again by leaving the studio to pursue more interesting parts in more promising projects.
Sudden Fear (1952) (Cohen, Blu-ray), her first film after being released from Warner Bros., features Crawford as middle-aged San Francisco heiress and successful Broadway playwright Myra Hudson, who is wooed by the handsome (and younger) Lester Blaine (Jack Palance), an intense New York actor she rejected as leading man in her new play. They marry after a whirlwind romance on a cross-country train ride and a San Francisco courtship but despite his protestations that he’s not a man to live off of his wife’s money, that’s exactly what he intends. When he discovers that he’s all but left out of her new will, he schemes with his mistress (Gloria Grahame) to murder Myra before the changes are finalized.
Johnny Guitar: Olive Signature (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – Joan Crawford’s Vienna is the most masculine of women western heroes. A former saloon girl who earned her way to owning her own gambling house, she’s a mature woman with a history and she’s not ashamed of what she did to carve out her claim for a future.
Directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge as frontier entrepreneurs in a war of wills, the 1954 Johnny Guitar is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter. It’s dense with psychological thickets and political reverberations (including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood), designed with color both expressive and explosive, and directed with the grace of a symphony and the drama of an opera.
Sterling Hayden plays the title character, a lanky, affable cowboy who wanders into Vienna’s saloon in the opening minutes and serves as witness to the dramas bubbling up in this frontier community in the hills. But his acts of heroism aside, he’s the equivalent of the stalwart girlfriend watching the showdown between Vienna and the Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). She’s the town banker and moral arbiter whose power is threatened by Vienna (her saloon is built on the site of the railway line) and whose shameful desire for a bad boy miner (Scott Brady) flares up into vengeance against Crawford, the object of his desire.
With sales of movies on disc falling with the rise of streaming video and digital movies, many studios have licensed their catalogs of classic movies to other labels. But not Warner Brothers. They started the Warner Archive in 2009 for manufacture-on-demand releases of films that otherwise wouldn’t support a traditional DVD release, and a few years later they started releasing Blu-rays through the same service. The difference between the formats, however, is that the Blu-ray releases from this line are in fact pressed discs and they feature high-quality transfers as good as any classic released through Warner’s traditionally-marketed Blu-ray line.
Because they are available only by order online (through Warner Archive, Amazon, and other outlets), they don’t get the kind of public profile that commercially released and distributed discs get. So here are some of the highlights of the past few months.
Out of the Past (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – In a genre full of desperate characters scrambling and plotting to grab their slice of the American dream, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) is a hard-boiled tale of betrayal with an unusually haunting quality. Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is the classic doomed not-so-innocent of the American cinema, a former private detective whose life is forever changed when he falls in love with the wrong woman: Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer), the runaway mistress of a gangster (Kirk Douglas, all shark-like smiles). He’s been hired to get both her and the small fortune she stole back. She has other ideas and immediately seduces him, sending him on a long road to a fatal dead end.
Jacques Tourneur’s masterpiece has been called the greatest film noir of all time and I wouldn’t argue the claim. It’s certainly one of the quintessential expressions of the genre, a hard-boiled story of betrayal and revenge with its compromised PI, vindictive gangster, coldly conniving femme fatale, and flashback structure narrated by the wounded hero. It opens in an idealized rural Eden, flashes back to the corrupt city and an exotic escape south of the border, and crawls into a snake-in-Eden thriller of deception, regret, and scarred-over emotional wounds, and it’s beautifully photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, RKO’s resident expert in shadowy atmosphere and clear-eyed perceptions.
The photography alone is reason enough to get the Blu-ray; in a genre of hard shadows and stark graphic imagery, this film contrasts the dark scenes of murder and treachery with the rural escape and the wooded retreats, an ideal that is slowly corrupted when the city crooks arrive. But this is one of the noir essentials and features perhaps Mitchum’s greatest role. He delivers more than merely a performance: his sleepy-eyed sneer and laconic delivery create the quintessential bad boy with a good soul and resigned acceptance of his fate. And Greer is blithely seductive as the alluring but hollow object of his obsession. “Don’t you see you’ve only me to make deals with now?”
It’s a beautifully-mastered disc from an excellent source print, with no visible scratches or damage. The image is crisp and sharp and the contrasts are excellent, pulling out the details in the light and in the shadows. It features the commentary track by film noir expert James Ursini recorded for the 2004 DVD release.
Possessed (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – As Joan Crawford aged out of glamorous roles and glossy romantic dramas she remade herself in the 1940s as a tough, driven woman in a series of melodramas that gave the actress an opportunity to play big, emotional scenes. This 1947 drama stars Crawford as a woman who appears to be the very model of self-possessed strength and confidence except for her obsessive love for Van Heflin, a cad of a bachelor who is happy to play around with her but resists any commitment. She moves on and eventually marries the rich and kind Raymond Massey, but when Heflin re-enters her life and falls for another, younger woman, she spirals into jealousy, paranoia, and emotional instability.
Crawford gets to play both the proud, strong, glamorous woman and the flamboyantly crazy woman, sinking her teeth into jittery madness and exaggerating her trademark make-up (dark lips and slashes of eyeliner standing out from a powdered face) to something like a kabuki mask. This was made during the post-war fascination with psychiatry and analysis and plays out in flashback, framed by blandly authoritarian doctors providing elaborate diagnoses for the hysterical Crawford after she is found wandering the streets in a stage of shock in the opening scenes. The psychological explanations are simplistic and arrogant and the wonder drug that instantly makes her lucid is a movie gimmick, but that’s not unusual for the period. German-born director Curtis Bernhardt balances the portrait of high society affluence and fashionable lifestyle with the shadowy atmosphere of film noir as Crawford slips into madness.
It’s a handsome film and it looks great on Blu-ray, which shows just how rich and nuanced black-and-white photography can be. Features commentary by film historian Drew Capser and the featurette Possessed: The Quintessential Film Noir. Not to be contrary, but this this is less quintessential noir than a prime example of how the noir sensibility seeped into so many other films in the late forties and early fifties.
Yankee Doodle Dandy (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – James Cagney won his only Academy Award playing George M. Cohan in the rousing Michael Curtiz bio-pic. Cagney was a song-and-dance man before he found fame as a movie tough guy and he returns to his roots with a passion, dancing his way through the role with straight-backed, stiff legged formality while his body is coiled like a loaded spring about to leap. The story of his spunky rise in the showbiz world pure Hollywood hogwash, but it is delightful hogwash invigorated by Cagney’s cocksure drive. Walter Huston and Rosemary De Camp play his vaudevillian parents and Joan Leslie is the love of his life (for whom he writes the song “Mary” – “plain as any name can be”). It’s a real flag-waver of a show-biz tale, a Fourth of July celebration with Cagney setting off the fireworks.
Warner released the film as a two-disc special edition on DVD a decade ago. The Blu-ray presents and excellent HD edition of the film. Not all of the extras from that set have made it to this single-disc Blu-ray, but I’d say that the most essential supplements are there. That includes commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer (an expert on Warner Bros. studio history), the 45-minute documentary Let Freedom Sing!: The Story of Yankee Doodle Dandy, the 1943 propaganda film You, John Jones with Cagney, the 1943 cartoon Yankee Doodle Daffy, an “Audio Vault” of archival audio-only extras, the trailer, and the “Warner Night At the Movie 1942” collection of ephemera hosted by Leonard Maltin (with the cartoon Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid, short subject Beyond the Line of Duty, a newsreel, a Casablancatrailer).
Pete Kelly’s Blues (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Jack Webb is best remembered for his most iconic creation: Sgt. Joe Friday, the no-nonsense hero of the police drama Dragnet on radio and TV. But he played a number of other characters on radio and TV and in the movies, and one of his favorites was jazz coronet player Pete Kelly, first on the radio in 1951 and then in this 1955 movie. Webb directs and stars as Pete, the leader of a Dixieland jazz band in 1927 Kansas City, when speakeasies sold bootleg liquor practically in plain sight and the mob ran the streets.
It’s a mix of musical melodrama, with Pete as a struggling musician trying to keep a band together during the depression and Janet Leigh as a rich flapper who falls for the reluctant Pete, and gangster drama, with Edmond O’Brien as the mob boss running the protection rackets, produced in bright, vibrant Technicolor and CinemaScope. Webb was a big fan of Dixieland jazz and fills the film with club performances by his band (performed by Matty Matlock’s Dixielanders) and vocal numbers by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee (who earned an Oscar nomination for her performance as an alcoholic torch singer). Webb’s performance mixes the terse, unemotional delivery of Friday with an edge of uneasiness and dialogue filled with period slang and colorful dialogue and his direction is clean and straightforward, light on atmosphere but full of vivid characters and telling detail. His casting is also interesting, with Lee Marvin playing nicely against his usual tough guy roles as an easy-going clarinet player and Andy Devine, who usually get comic relief roles, playing it tough as a cop who wants to shut down O’Brien’s mob boss. It’s a solid old-fashioned drama with great music, memorable dialogue, and lots of period color. The new Blu-ray looks great, with color that pops, and it includes two vintage shorts.
The Great Race (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) – Blake Edwards made this epic comedy, a tribute to silent movie serials and thrill comedies, a few years after It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which helps explain the unusual length and scope of the film. Tony Curtis stars as the clean-living, chivalrous, and chauvinistic hero The Great Leslie, always clad in gleaming white outfits, while Jack Lemmon is in black and sports a flamboyant mustache as his dastardly nemesis Professor Fate, a rival daredevil who, with the help of his loyal but dim henchman (Peter Falk), tries to sabotage Leslie at every turn. Like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, every scheme ends up backfiring on them.
The rivals engage in a car race from New York to Paris (they float across from Alaska to Russia on an ice floe) while a suffragette newspaperwoman (played by Natalie Wood) joins them, first as a racing competitor and then as a traveling companion. Blake Edwards has always been a fan of physical comedy and elaborate visual gags and this film, which he dedicates to “Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy,” plays the slapstick for self-aware nostalgia, taking cartoonish delight in the lavish recreations (from barnstorming biplanes to an old west saloon and a Russian castle), Rube Goldberg schemes with early 20th century technology, and comic brawls, the last of which is a massive cream pie fight in a Russian castle. While it doesn’t have the star-studded cast of Mad World, it has an epic running time of two hours and forty minutes, so long that it requires an intermission. It is, in fact, a little too long for the whimsical nature of the story, and it stalls long before the end, but there’s just enough gas to get it across the finish line.
The Blu-ray, beautifully transferred from a restored Technicolor master of the complete Road Show version, also includes the original Overture, Entr’acte and Exit sequences and an archival behind-the-scenes featurette.
Kismet (Warner Archive, Blu-ray) is one of the stranger exotic musicals from MGM’s Technicolor prime (though to be accurate, this was shot in Eastman Color). Howard Keel, who plays a beggar-poet with a lovely daughter (Ann Blyth), carries the slim tale with his outsized presence and rich baritone. Directed by Vincent Minnelli, it is a pure studio fantasy of Arabian exotica starring Howard Keel, who carries the slim fantasy of wizards and princes curses and treasures with his outsized presence and rich baritone. Blyth and Vic Damone are admittedly weak, but the score is marvelous, including “Stranger in Paradise” and “Baubles, Bangles, Bright Shiny Beads,” though the best moment is Dolores Gray’s number “Not Since Ninevah,” as she tries to woo three Princesses into staying in Bagdad with a great song and dance performance in a huge, lavish set. The glorious production design and fantastic Eastman Color storybook colors never allows reality to intrude upon the make believe.
This disc features a superb HD transfer of the CinemaScope film with a DTS-HD 5.1 treatment of the original soundtrack. Supplements include an alternate version of the song “Rahadlakum” (in B&W) from the archives, an audio-only deleted song, two excerpts from the TV series MGM Parade about the film, the 1955 short The Battle of Gettysburg and Tex Avery cartoon The First Bad Men, and trailers from the film and the earlier 1944 version of the musical.
Johnny Guitar, an operatic western centered around two powerful female characters who are more masculine than the men around them, is one of the most unusual westerns of its era, or any era for that matter.
Dense with psychological conflicts and political suggestions, including a not-so-veiled allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts in Hollywood, which both director Nicholas Ray and screenwriter Philip Yordan have acknowledged was their intention, it is a rich, vivid film directed by an artist at the peak of his powers and one of the most expressive color westerns of all time. And it has been one of the most anticipated DVD releases since the inception of the format.
Made for Republic Pictures, the poor cousin to the dominant Hollywood studios, and designed as a vehicle for Joan Crawford, a once powerful screen superstar whose popularity was in decline but whose talent and business acumen was still in fine form, this is a western as baroque melodrama. Crawford is Vienna, the owner of a saloon and gambling house built on the outskirts of a frontier town. She’s staking her claim for her share of the American dream–she chose her location on a tip about the railroad line coming through the area–and the former saloon girl (western movie code for hooker) used the only path available to her to earn her own capital and build her own business without bowing to anyone. She’s not ashamed of the road she took but neither is she especially proud of it either. Not that anyone in this film has a particularly proud past. It is past, however, for the Vienna we meet is no saloon girl. She’s a businesswoman and a boss and she has the strength and stature to stand up for what is hers, materially and morally. It’s not just business, it’s her right to lay her stake on the future of the American west.
Vienna faces hostility from the local townsfolk, most of it whipped up by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), who co-owns the bank with her brother, and rancher John McIvers (Ward Bond). They are, not so coincidentally, the richest and most powerful people around. And when the local stagecoach is robbed and a passenger–Emma’s brother, in fact–is killed, a mob arrives at Vienna’s saloon and Emma accuses a group of miners led by the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) of the robbery and Vienna of sheltering the outlaws. There’s no evidence, just suspicion and vitriolic hatred. The repressed Emma is attracted to Dancin’ Kid (seriously, it isn’t just his nickname, it’s the only name anyone knows him by) and can’t decide if she’s more ashamed of her desire of the handsome bad boy or of the fact that Kid has the hots for her rival Vienna. Coupled with the fact that Vienna’s prime location positions her to make a fortune when the railroad comes through, it makes for a combustible mixture of animosity and aggression.
[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]
Howard Winchester Hawks was home the afternoon of July 12, 1976.For some time there, it looked as if it wouldn’t happen. Kathleen Murphy had finally taken the leap and declared Howard Hawks: An American Auteur in the Hemingway Tradition as her dissertation subject. Then she decided she’d better talk with the man himself. Phone calls were made, and friendly sounds, but Hawks could never plan “that far ahead” because he was “working on a story.” When “that far ahead” got cut to a little over a day and a half, it was on, and there was a frantic scramble for a borrowed tape recorder (courtesy of Ron Green), plane reservations, and an L.A. homebase (provided by Rick and Leslie Thompson). That was Saturday; Sunday, we flew; Monday morning, we were driving in a rental car to get to Palm Springs by noon.
When we walked in out of the 98° air about five minutes late, three dogs checked us over while our host continued strongly to advise the person on the other end of his phone line that the air conditioning equipment he’d installed wasn’t working, and that he, Hawks, had come to the conclusion “you’re a goddam crook.” Serious doubts about the enterprise set in when I took an indicated seat on the edge of a Relaxacisor chair and inadvertently tripped the activator switch, precipitating a non-Hemingwayesque movement of the earth beneath me; and when I failed to locate the switch by conscious means, I became the object of an icy blue stare that made me feel distinctly like the “Fancy Vest” who’d been dumb enough to sidle toward his rifle under the assumption that Cole Thornton wouldn’t notice. An attempt to start recording with side two of the first cassette almost came as an anticlimax after that.
Still, we were there—and we stayed there. We had brought along about 30 hours worth of tape; we could have filled nearly twice that, despite several gestures of willingness to depart if we were being too much of a bother. Mr. Hawks, who had turned 80just over a month before, had driven 350 miles the previous day, taking his son to and from a motorcycle meet in the desert; and he frequently kneaded a stiffening hand he’d once broken on Ernest Hemingway’s jaw. He talked. We talked. Whenever he left the room to find a sketch or article that had come up in the conversation, we prowled around looking at the original Red River D belt buckle on the wall, the title painting from El Dorado, the mugs painted HOWARD, FROM DUKE. The dogs clicked in and out of the immediate vicinity on the cool flagstone floor, occasionally crowding up to Hawks for special attention; he put on his sternest manner to dismiss them, but when, about the third time it happened, we managed to remark out loud that he wasn’t being very convincing, he broke into a richly pleased smile, and from then on there was a lot of laughing.
We didn’t go to Palm Springs to interview Howard Hawks for Movietone News, but in listening and relistening to the tapes and seeing the more-than-pleasure they brought to other people, we finally decided what the hell. The following represents but a portion of what we recorded. The Hemingway material, while valuable and provocative, has been left out here. We heard some of the anecdotes that previous Hawks interviews have included, and some of them are reproduced here yet again—partly because they will be new to some readers, partly because they’re wrapped around other material, partly because even many months later they still seem different to us because we heard them from Howard Hawks himself and watched him while he told them. There are scads of questions we wish we’d asked. Some we did ask didn’t go anywhere (like what happened to Malcolm Atterbury and Harry Carey Jr., listed in the credits of RioBravobut not on view in the film itself). Sometimes the ways Hawks misconstrued, or chose to misconstrue, the questions were almost as interesting and suggestive as more direct answers might have been; but mostly these have been edited out.
As days go, it will be hard to top. Just about the time the cassette went into the machine right, Mr. Hawks was looking at a copy of MTN 26, containing the John Ford memorial, and remarking that he’d “seen it before—about 50 times.” He meant the Monument Valley butte on the cover. We’ll let July 12take it from there.
John Ford, John Wayne, acting like an old man, etc.
Well, Ford and I guess I were the only people that worked with Wayne that he didn’t want to know what the story was or he didn’t want to see the script—he just said, “When do we start?” … And of course he adored Ford. As a matter of fact, Ford came down here to die. And I used to stop in at his house and have a drink on the way to playing golf. One day I went in and he was laughing like hell, and I said, “What are ya laughing about?” and he said, “I was just remembering all of the things I’ve stolen from you.” I said, “I’ll make ya any kind of a bet that I’ve stolen more. Hell, you’d be dead before you’d even find out.” And one day—he was really laughing—he said, “I just thought of the best thing I ever stole from you. I had just a fair-to-middling picture up for an Academy Award [How Green Was My Valley]and you had a real good one [Sergeant York]and I beat ya out of it!” And when I went over to see him and he said goodbye to me about six times, I knew that something was happening and I phoned Wayne and I said, “You better get down here and see Pappy. If I were you I’d fly down.” He came down and he saw him just two or three hours before he died.
My opinion was that he was the best director in the picture business. It was very strange because we were both very pleased that the other one would steal from him. We didn’t have any feeling of jealousy or anything like that. When I made RedRiverwith Wayne, Ford saw it and said, “I didn’t think the big son-of-a-bitch could act!” And he put him in two really good pictures immediately after, and within a year and a half Wayne was one of the biggest stars in the picture business.
Every time I made a picture with Wayne, Ford used to come down and stay with us on location, watching. And I’d say, “Can’t you wait to see it to steal something from it?”