On Blu-ray: Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1944) and the 1940 Original That Preceded It

The 1944 version of Gaslight is one of the first classic films I saw and I return to it frequently. It is Hollywood filmmaking at its best, where talent, story, and production value are so good that a simple entertainment becomes an artistic triumph. I recently revisited the George Cukor-directed film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive, which includes the original British adaptation of the film from 1940, directed by Thorold Dickinson.

Both versions on the film center on a wealthy couple in London. She is the fragile, but perceptive survivor of a horrific childhood incident. He is as much her stern caretaker as husband, always claiming to have her best interest in mind, but rarely demonstrating the warmth and regard of true love. When he begins to make her doubt her own sanity, their lives become consumed with emotional violence.

Hollywood gloss can have an unpredictable effect on an adaptation. Sometimes it can destroy the soul of a story; at its best it can elevate it, as happened with Cukor at the helm and a particularly vibrant cast. As the leads Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer are intense performers and Bergman in particular can have a visceral effect on her audience. With the teenage Angela Lansbury making her screen debut as a maid with carnal knowledge beyond her years and Joseph Cotten providing a soothing counterpoint to his passionate costars, this is a perfectly harmonious cast.

There’s also much to enjoy in the 1940 production, included on the disc as a special feature, which sticks closer to the 1938 stage play upon which it is based. The original also feels more like a stage play, which means that in some respects it is less dynamic than the Cukor version, but that more static feeling also serves the tense mood of the film. As the couple at its center, Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard seem more isolated and focused on each other.

A dramatic difference between the two films is in the way the marriage is portrayed. In the 1940 version Paul and Bella already have a tense relationship. While Bella still desires the affection of her husband, she fears him and already senses that something is deeply wrong. There’s an extra chill to Cukor’s film, because you see Gregory and Paula fall in love, enjoying all the giddy pleasures of a new romance. When it goes wrong, there’s a feeling of loss and even betrayal.

The term Gaslight has become more common over the past few years, as it is now inextricably connected to the trauma of current politics. It was interesting to revisit the more intimate, devastating origins of the concept, and the two different, and in their way equally compelling ways in which this method of abuse is portrayed.

In addition to the 1940 Gaslight, special features on the disc include a 1946 Lux Radio Broadcast of Gaslight, the short featurette Reflections on Gaslight, a Reminiscence by Pia Lindstrom About her Mother Ingrid Bergman, a 1944 Academy Award ceremonies newsreel, and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

On Blu-ray: Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne in Merrily We Live (1938)

The lightly silly screwball comedy Merrily We Live (1938) was a pleasant revelation for me. Set in the world of the super wealthy, it centers on a family that lives in chaos, much like the brood in My Man Godfrey (1936). While this Hal Roach production isn’t quite as witty as Godfrey, it’s buoyed by high energy, an appealing cast, and slickly-executed physical humor.

Eerily slim-waisted Constance Bennett is Jerry Kilbourne, a gorgeous socialite who lives a life of luxurious aimlessness with her restless siblings (Bonita Granville and Tom Brown), an increasingly fed up father (Clarence Kolb), and her kooky hobo-collecting mother (Billie Burke). They are surrounded by unruly pets: among them birds wiggling on perches and enormous dogs who have clearly flunked obedience school, who add to the general feeling of pandemonium.

Mama Kilbourne’s penchant for taking in homeless men has once again ended in disaster as the flustered butler (Alan Mowbray) discovers the empty silver drawer and must improvise eating implements for breakfast with the less bothered house maid (Patsy Kelly). Though Mrs. K claims to swear off her do-gooding, the next handsome stranger who shows up at the door is given a warm welcome as if not a spoon has been filched. That stranger is Wade Rawlins (Brian Aherne) who is not homeless, but unlucky. Jerry takes a liking to Wade, which is understandable given the mind-numbing dullness of her society boyfriend. A chaotic household becomes increasingly wilder in the process.

While a few of the set pieces in Merrily We Live drag, this is for the most part a consistently fun flick. Aherne is a bit out of his depth as a comic, but he dives into the action with great enthusiasm and pulls off a lightly amusing performance. The rest of the cast moves with delirious comic momentum, fully committed to the lunacy of it all. Burke steals all of her scenes with that familiar fairy-like fluttering, but Bennett keeps pace with her movie mama, demonstrating a comic talent a bit more smoothly elegant than some of her more screwball peers.

Being in the world of the Kilbournes was good fun. This one is worth revisiting.

Merrily We Live is now available on Blu-ray. Many thanks to ClassicFlix for providing a copy of the film for review.

On Blu-ray: James Cagney and Joan Blondell in Busby Berkeley's Footlight Parade (1933)

All film fans have their cinematic version of comfort food and mine is the musicals of choreographer Busby Berkeley. These busy, bubbly productions full of wit, beauty and excitement are pleasant to have on in the background, but deserving of the most devoted attention. I’m especially fond of Footlight Parade (1933), because it features James Cagney, famous for crime movies, but an excellent dancer and interpreter of song who rarely had the opportunity to ditch his prop Tommy gun for tap shoes. The film looks great in its Blu-ray debut, now out from Warner Archive.

Director Lloyd Bacon assembled a cast that will be happily familiar to fans of Warner Bros. productions of the day. Cagney is joined by Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Dick Powell in the leads, with endearing characters like Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee, and Hugh Herbert in the supporting roles. As a group they work with a slick precision that is hidden behind a façade of insouciance. They’re all entirely comfortable with their personas, quick with a quip, and interact with each other like highly trained dancers.

Cagney is the picture of delight as stage producer Chester Kent, a quick-thinking impresario who must find a way to incorporate live entertainment into cinemas if he hopes to stay in business. He gets into romantic trouble with the always dangerous Claire Dodd, while his lovelorn secretary looks on in exasperation (Joan Blondell, who gets one of the best lines of the era when she tells Dodd, “as long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job”). As great as he was as a gangster, Cagney looks most at home in this setting and frequent costar Blondell is his best screen partner.

The musical numbers are among the best Berkeley staged, from the light charm of kitty-costumed dancers in Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence to the sensual longing of Shanghai Lil. Nothing can beat Busby’s most elaborate number though, a stunning precursor to Esther Williams’ operatic aquatic productions, By a Waterfall

Never has Berkeley's camera seemed more perfectly placed, moving above, below, and through a smilingly willing group of waterlogged chorines. Something about the water makes this precisely-calculated collision of glamour and military discipline look as easy as rolling into the river. It is the perfect cinematic marriage of art and craft.

Special features on the disc, which are carried over from the DVD release, include the featurette Music for the Decades, the fascinating vintage featurettes Rambling ‘Round Radio Row #8 and Vaudeville Reel #1, a collection of vintage cartoons, and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Book Review--Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend

Finding Zsa Zsa: The Gabors Behind the Legend
Sam Staggs
Kensington Books, 2019

It’s fair to say that the Gabor women never bored anyone. For decades, pop culture frothed with the escapades of sisters Zsa Zsa, Eva, and Magda and their mother Jolie. These Hungarian glamour gals escaped the horrors of World War II Europe to thrive, strive, and live big in the American public eye. In a new book, Sam Staggs explores the lives of these women who were occasionally misunderstood, but never ignored.

Zsa Zsa gets the bulk of the attention in the book, for the most part because she had the highest public profile, though the author’s long association with her daughter Francesca clearly had much to do with the level of detail available about her. Hers is also the most fascinating story, a chaotic mix of marriages, movies, television appearances, oft unseen good deeds, and questionable decisions. I was fascinated to learn more about her acting career; there were several films of hers that I'd never heard of, and which seem to have revealed a talent that wasn't developed.

A more serious and career-minded actress, Eva would have liked the attention her sister got, though perhaps not the notoriety. Her Hungarian accent always limited her career opportunities. This is not to say she didn’t make her mark in legitimate roles. She excelled in the classic TV program Greenacres (1965-1971) and made brief appearances in celebrated films like Gigi (1958) and as a voice actress in the Disney productions The Rescuers (1977) and The Aristocats (1970). Eva never attained the level of stardom she desired though, with high quality lead roles always elusive. Here her frustration is made clear.

These two women and their loving, but bumpy relationship dominate the story, while their more stable, sober-minded sister Magda and their flamboyant jewelry store owner mother Jolie are mentioned as much for their relationship to these two as for their own stories. Unlike her sisters, Magda was in Europe and served her country during World War II, an experience which colored the rest of her life. Jolie seems to have been less bothered by her turbulent wartime past, instead enjoying all the pleasures she could grab and edging herself into her daughters’ spotlight as much as possible. In a revealing early passage, Staggs writes that Jolie enjoyed watching her daughters fistfight when they were girls. She clearly loved her children, but her values were often not healthy for them.

As far as covering the more sensational aspects of Gabor life, the book delivers, though it also reveals the extent to which the family cared for others, including their fellow Hungarians during the occupation and their father, who they tried to keep safe and provide for throughout his struggles in Hungary. While they embraced the glitter of fame and wealth, they were more connected to their roots than public perception would have you think. Zsa Zsa in particular comes off as more complex, truly the person she revealed to the public, but also more caring than is often perceived, though often made less so by her passions for the wrong men.

I often found myself thrown by the differences in tone throughout the book, from objective third person narrative, to strongly worded opinion and with the format sometimes switching to conversations between author and various interviewees. I also found it unnecessary to share the troubles of Zsa Zsa’s daughter Francesca in such detail. Outlining the particulars of an unpleasant incident at a coffee shop in particular seemed an unnecessary humiliation for this troubled woman, who predeceased her mother after struggling with her shifty stepfather Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt for years to have access to her ailing parent. I felt it didn’t add any further clarity to what was already clearly a troubling story.

Overall, this is an engrossing read. These women led vibrant, turbulent lives and I was left with a better understanding about who they were and how their family dynamic, and public life molded them.

Many thanks to Kensington Books for providing a copy of the book for review.

On Blu-ray: Sidney Poitier in A Patch of Blue (1965)

Though awarded and appreciated in its time, I’ve never felt that A Patch of Blue (1965) has gotten the attention it deserves. As a showcase for a pair of Sidney Poitier and Shelley Winter’s best performances, a wonderful debut for the delicate Elizabeth Hartman, and a tribute to the power of kindness and generosity, it is a soul-stirring film. Though not always easy to watch, it is immensely appealing and ultimately uplifting. I recently re-watched it on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

In her film debut, Elizabeth Hartman is Selina, a poor, uneducated girl who was blinded in a childhood accident. She lives in a ragged apartment with her abusive mother (Shelley Winters) and alcoholic grandfather (Wallace Ford in his final role). Treated like a servant, and forced to string beaded necklaces to earn her keep, Selina has experienced little of the world beyond what she hears on the radio and has received no guidance as to how to navigate life blind.

Selina eventually convinces her mother to let her make necklaces in the park. There she meets Gordon (Poitier), a friendly, educated professional, who is also black, who frequents the park during the day because he works at night. Gordon feels sorry for Selina and in his increasing efforts to help her live a better life he comes to love her. With the specter of their racial differences always with them, they increasingly look to each other for companionship and fulfillment.

As Gordon, Poitier creates a rare portrayal of a gentle man with agency and ambition. He draws power from his empathy, creating a character that is romantic because he wants the woman he admires to become strong and independent. While he is often forced to become controlling in order to navigate various tricky situations, his goal is to live in harmony with Selina, his brother (a wary Ivan Dixon), and in a world that often views him with hostility.

Winters is the opposite of Poitier, relying on threats and violence to grab the things she feels life has unfairly denied her. She deservedly won a supporting actress Oscar for portraying a racist, selfish woman, who should be completely repulsive, but somehow manages to communicate a bit of the hurt and yearning within her whirlwind of anger. That Winters was devastated to have to play such a hateful, bigoted character makes her performance all the more remarkable.

It’s almost painful to watch Hartman at work. She’s so tender and fragile. Her delight in the small luxuries of life Gordon shares with her, like a carton of pineapple juice or a plate of canned peaches, is in dramatic contrast to the violence and chaos of the rest of her life.

Just like Selina, Hartman was emerging into a new world. The attention the shy actress won for her remarkable debut was difficult for her to process. She would go on to appear in several more films, but always struggled with her mental health, eventually committing suicide at the age of 43 in 1987.

Special features include a trailer for the film, a featurette about Elizabeth Hartman with behind-the-scenes footage and a glimpse at her charming screen tests, and a commentary with the film’s director Guy Green from the DVD release in which he shares pleasant memories of making the film and interesting tidbits like the fact that Hayley Mills was once in consideration for the lead.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Pre-code on DVD: Robert Montgomery and Sally Eilers in Made on Broadway (1933)

I’m delighted that Warner Archive has kept its promise to continue regularly releasing pre-code titles after the conclusion of its Forbidden Hollywood series. Its recent DVD release of Made on Broadway (1933) is definitely the kind of film that would have fit perfectly into one of those boxed sets. It’s a fast-moving comedy of deception with Robert Montgomery at his charming best.

Montgomery is a public-relations man who owns a club exclusively patronized by potential clients who drink free with the understanding that they will likely later be paying much more for his services. He fancies himself a clever guy who gets all the angles. However, he finds himself humbled when he rescues a young working class girl (Sally Eilers) who throws herself into the river.

Instead of batting eyes at her hero, Eilers tells the press that she saved Montgomery. Impressed by her wit and nerve, he decides to build her up as a socialite, with the help of his remarkably helpful ex-wife (Madge Evans). As he falls for his creation, Eilers finds herself in trouble, and keeps him on his toes with her unpredictable and increasingly bold schemes.

Montgomery knows that he has gotten himself mixed up with a trickster, but he can’t back away, because he seems to understand on some level that he has finally found the woman he deserves. It’s amusing to watch him essentially face his own chicanery through the eyes of love. It is the perfect use of his “can’t be bothered” pre-code persona.

You never know if the volcanically-voiced Eugene Pallette is going to be working class or a millionaire; here he is the former as Montgomery’s butler. Jean Parker rounds out a charming supporting cast (Bess Flowers and Billy Gilbert also make brief appearances) and Evans projects the perfect exhausted elegance as a woman who is used to dealing with problematic men. Though mostly forgotten today, Eilers was a reliable presence in early talkies; her under-the-radar charms works well in this role where surprise is of the essence.

This is a fun, snappy entry in the pre-code universe.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

On DVD: Doris Day in The Pajama Game (1957)

I’ve always viewed The Pajama Game (1957) as an oddity among musicals. How else can you look at a romance blossoming among workers’ strikes and labor negotiations? Compounding that is a soundtrack which mixes utterly forgettable tunes with some of the greatest classics of the genre and one outstanding dance number, choreographed by a young Bob Fosse and featuring the remarkable dancer and choreographer Carole Haney. I recently re-watched this Doris Day classic on a new DVD release from Warner Archive.

Day stars as an employee of a pajama factory who is also a leader in the employee union. Her life becomes more complicated when the employees organize to fight for better wages just as she is falling for the new superintendent (John Raitt). The workers resist, Day and Raitt tangle, and everything is resolved amidst high kicks and enthusiastic production numbers.

The Pajama Game originated on the stage and much of the original cast appears in the film, with the most notable exception being Day taking on Janis Paige’s role. You can feel that play-to the-rafters stage performer energy throughout the film. It keeps the momentum rolling through the more lackluster songs. Those tunes with sparkle are an eclectic bunch: the slinky Hernando’s Hideaway, the precision pop of Steam Heat (both led by edgy pixie Haney), and the dreamily wistful Hey There, which is good enough for two renditions: one by Raitt one by Day.

Day is reliably charming in the lead, she belts out songs with enthusiasm and alternates pleasingly between romance and indignation, but Haney is the stand-out in Pajama Game. The actress won a Tony for originating her role on Broadway and by the time she appeared in the film, it fit her like a body stocking. Of the eight films the mostly stage bound dancer made, this would be one of her only opportunities to take center stage (another notable film appearance: her featured dance with Bob Fosse in Kiss Me Kate [1953]).

Haney had been assistant choreographer to Gene Kelly early in her career, working on (and sometimes appearing in) films including On the Town (1949), Summer Stock (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). You can see a bit of Kelly’s elegant grace in her style, but it is secondary to her full embodiment of choreographer Bob Fosse’s tightly-wound, cool cat style. She displays this to marvelous effect as part of a dance trio in the show-stopping Steam Heat, a number so sharply modern that it hardly seems a part of the same film.

The film is an interesting mix of the nostalgic and the cutting edge, where a cheerfully corny picnic can coexist with writhing bodies in lockstep formation. It’s clearly a late-studio age musical, with a toe in the past and an eye to the future.

Special features on the DVD include a theatrical trailer and the deleted song, The Man Who Invented Love.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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