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.

On Blu-ray: Mark Hamill and Annie Potts in Corvette Summer (1978)

A year after Star Wars (1977) brought Mark Hamill lasting fame he starred in the exponentially more modest Corvette Summer (1978). Despite the dramatic difference in setting, he plays a similarly naïve, but principled young man on a quest. It’s as if Luke Skywalker dropped into a high school auto shop after a journey from a galaxy far away. I recently revisited the film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Hamill is Kenny, an earnest shop student on the verge of high school graduation. The big class project is a souped-up, cherry-colored Corvette Stingray, which the kids (among them an adorable Danny Bonaduce) are eager to take for a test run. They are devastated when the car is stolen mid-drive and no one more so than Kenny, who decides he must find it at all costs.

He gets a tip that the Corvette is on display in a Las Vegas casino, so he hitches his way across the desert. Instead of finding the car, he meets scrappy aspiring call girl Vanessa (Annie Potts). Though she has a slick trick van, she’s not much older than Kenny and clearly isn’t prepared for the dangerous world of hooking on the strip. When she can’t convince him to become a client, she helps him instead, as hookers with a heart of gold do in the movies.

While much of the action is played lightly, Kenny falls into disturbing territory. He becomes acquainted with violence and corruption beyond his ability to process and his confusion clouds his judgment. You might think that would be the juicy part of the proceedings, but it’s actually when the film begins to lose steam.

Hamill leaps through his early scenes with the earnestness of a half-trained puppy. He’s full of enthusiasm and only somewhat prepared for adult life. While his single mother has given him a taste of the rot in the world, he’s still endearingly eager and the energy he exudes keeps the first part of the film lively, especially when he meets Potts, who nearly steals it all away from him.

The plot begins to drag on the pair though, who really only need each other to engage an audience. Instead, they are required to march through a series of events that fail to be novel or intriguing. They’d have been ideal together in a story with less crime, more screwball action.

As it is, Hamill and Potts are worth the watch and overall the film has the warm feeling of a flick you'll always love because you saw it for the first time when you were twelve.

Bonus: Beloved character actor Dick Miller makes one of his most endearing cameos as a lucky man who is happy to spread the wealth.

The sole special feature on the disc is a trailer for the film.

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

On Blu-ray: Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft in The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)

Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft are well matched as a married couple navigating chaotic city life in The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), Neil Simon’s adaptation of his own stage play. They both play from the soul, with a lack of artifice that enables them to express the complications of human nature with great clarity. I enjoyed seeing these two play off each other in a new Blu-ray release of the film from Warner Archive.

Lemmon and Bancroft are settled into empty-nester life in their fourteenth floor New York apartment when suddenly everything seems to turn sour. Lemmon loses his job, their apartment is burglarized, and the crowds, crime and noise of the city begin to overwhelm them. To top it off, on the same day the building elevator and the water service both break down. Bancroft manages to keep her cool for the most part, but Lemmon veers towards a nervous breakdown.

Throughout their trials with rude neighbors, criminals, suspected criminals (Lemmon chases a suspect, a young Sylvester Stallone, in an amusing scene in Central Park), and meddling family, Bancroft and Lemmon remain endearingly devoted to each other. Even when they fight, there’s a powerful undercurrent of love between them. In a film full of great visuals, with a sparkling script and sharp supporting cast, these two are the overwhelmingly moving, beating heart of it all. They have created loving, funny characters that have clearly grown together in their years as a couple, to the point where they are a single unit. It’s a great portrayal of a marriage.

While The Prisoner of Second Avenue taps into timeless fears about change, urban living, and the frustration of lacking control of your own circumstances, it is a fascinating time capsule as well. Though it is for the most part filmed in few locations and reflective of its roots on the stage, there are several great sequences featuring 1970s New York City. It’s worth watching just to catch a glimpse of the cars, fashion, and feel of the city in that time.

Special features on the Blu-ray include a theatrical trailer, the vintage featurette The Making of the Prisoner of Second Avenue, and a segment from The Dinah Shore Show where the host interviews her friend Anne Bancroft. That last feature is a fascinating bit of classic talk show elegance, with its odd mix of personal chatter and professional promotion.

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

Streaming Diary: Classic Films on Hoopla

The streaming services from my city and county library are one of my favorite sources of classic films. While not every system has subscriptions to services like Kanopy and Hoopla, many do, from city and county systems to universities. While I subscribe to a handful of streaming services, I spend most of my time watching discs borrowed from the library and films on Hoopla and Kanopy. I have plenty to keep me busy!

Here are some of my latest favorites streaming on Hoopla:

That Guy Dick Miller (2015)
The recent death of prolific character actor Dick Miller makes this tender tribute to him all the more touching. With a distinctive carved-from-granite face and a plethora of cameo roles in Roger Corman and Joe Dante films, among many others, pretty much anyone who loves the movies knows this guy. Here friends, family, coworkers, and the man himself discuss his turbulent, but essentially happy life and career. I didn’t think I could love Miller any more, but the man revealed here is a truly special human being.

Amphibian Man (1962)
The title of this Soviet fantasy flick led me to expect a sci-fi creature feature like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). While there are elements of sci-fi in this story of a young man who can breathe under the sea, it offers more romance and fantasy than chills. The Amphibian Man is not only a sweet guy, but also in love with a girl on land. It's a charming story.

Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
I always thought this would be the perfect film for whatever the 1930s version of a Goth girl would be. Fredric March has a deliciously dangerous take on his role as Death, who as the title indicates takes a breather from retrieving souls from the mortal world. His reason: a big crush on the moodily romantic Evelyn Venable.

Gambit (1967)
There are some things about this Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine caper that haven’t aged well, but it’s still an intriguing, good-looking thriller. Caine hires MacLaine to help him steal a priceless artifact from the wealthy, and savvy, Herbert Lom. In a long opening sequence, Caine imagines a flawless, sophisticated operation that fulfills his wildest dreams. The reality that follows is messier and much more entertaining.

The House of the Seven Gables (1940)
The impact of two performers as potent as Vincent Price and George Sanders playing brothers in this very loose adaptation of the classic Nathaniel Hawthorne book was almost more than I could process. It’s no surprise that Margaret Lindsay gets a bit lost here, though she is nevertheless effective herself in an unusually substantial dramatic lead.

The Red House (1947)
After struggling for years to view this beautifully bizarre country Gothic on horrible public domain prints, it is such a revelation to see a restored version. Starring Edward G. Robinson and Judith Anderson as brother and sister and Rory Calhoun and Julie London as the hottest twenty-something teen lovers ever, there’s a lot going on in this suspense thriller about a dark, hidden family history.

On DVD: Judith Anderson is Lady Scarface (1941)

Lady Scarface (1941) is entertaining, but it doesn’t live up to the promise of its title and star. Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, I went into this crime thriller expecting Judith Anderson to dominate the action as the titular criminal. This was not the case, and it was hard not to pine for what could have been.

A year after her career-defining performance as Ms. Danvers in Rebecca (1941), Judith Anderson is suitably tough and commanding as lady gang leader Slade. Every time she appears, there’s that electrical anticipation of things getting a little more operatic. She doesn’t have enough screen time to build her character though. You spend most of the running time wondering when she’s coming back.

I also couldn’t help wishing that this film had been made in the pre-code era with Anderson still in the lead. As a less glamorous version of the kind of gangster character Joan Blondell played in Blondie Johnson (1933), she would have been dynamite. As it is, she only appeared in Blood Money (1933) during that era and didn’t really break into the movies until Rebecca, after which she alternated between film, television, and the stage for the rest of her career.

Most of the action revolves around a police lieutenant (Dennis O’Keefe) and newspaper reporter (Frances Neal) who are investigating Slade’s crimes. The plot full of mistaken identity, scams, and scheming is reminiscent of Wanted! Jane Turner (1936), a mildly entertaining thriller, but that film had a bit more sizzle between its leads Lee Tracy and Gloria Stuart. O’Keefe and Neal are cute enough together, though they might have been more engaging if, again, I weren’t constantly wondering when Anderson was coming back.

Overall this is an engaging film that moves along nicely, but it’s impossible to ignore that it doesn’t live up to its potential as a vehicle for Anderson.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

On DVD/Blu-ray: Martin Sheen in The Believers (1987)

Based on the novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde, John Schlesinger’s The Believers (1987) is a horror thriller that tackles two favorite 1980s punching bags: Afro-Caribbean religions like voodoo and the wealthy. Martin Sheen stars as a police psychiatrist dealing with the sudden, traumatic passing of his wife who suddenly finds himself battling a religious cult with an unseemly interest in his son. I recently viewed the film on a new Blu-ray release from Olive Films.

The film opens with his wife’s bizarre death scene, which consists of a perfectly-timed sequence of horrific bad luck. It has little to do with the events of the remainder of the film, and could even stand on its own as a horror short, but it effectively sets a tone of dread which fills every moment of The Believers. It also has a sensational, over-the-top feeling which seems to be specific to a certain type of 1980s thriller and characterizes the shock moments throughout the film.

At the core of the plot is fear of faiths like the voodoo religion, also seen at the time in films like The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and Angel Heart (1987). For the most part the film takes an incurious, one-note approach to the faith, setting it firmly in “other” territory so that presumably it is easier to view it as the practice of evil, selfish cultists. This is a world away from the more nuanced perspective presented in films like Maya Deren’s documentary featuring the religion, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) and that appears to be the intention.

Sheen first encounters the rituals of the cult following his return to New York with his son. While in Central Park, they find bloody animal remains and beads abandoned after a ritual gathering. In the chaos of the discovery, he doesn’t notice his son pocketing one of the mysterious beads. 

Sheen's Latina housekeeper (Carla Pinza) does notice the bead, in addition to other warning signs. He forbids her from performing the rituals, more "other" activity that frightens him, and fires her when she persists in her struggle to keep him out of the cult’s hands.

Not long after the incident in the park, the NYPD begins to investigate a series of grisly child murders that appear to be the result of ritual sacrifice. With guidance from a hysterical cop played with manic energy by Jimmy Smits (the cult took his badge, so he knows he’s doomed), he begins to research voodoo and the brujería-inspired Santería faith apparently connected with the murders. In his off-hours, he romances his landlady (Helen Shaver), who in one of the film’s most stomach-churning scenes becomes the unfortunate victim of one of the cult’s spells.

Eventually Sheen connects the wealthy class of NYC with the crimes and finds connections to the cult in his own life. It’s not a set-up that rewards too much thought. The Believers is best approached as a vehicle for thrills, which it does offer, if on a somewhat uneven basis. It will appeal most to those who love that particular kind of paranoid, sensational thriller that thrived in the eighties.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the disc for review.

On Blu-ray: Richard Roundtree in Shaft's Big Score! (1972) and Shaft Goes to Africa (1973)

I was thrilled when Warner Archive announced it would be releasing the two sequels to the original Shaft (1971): Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft Goes to Africa (1973) on Blu-ray. I’d wanted to see these films for years. They ended up being interesting viewing and not what I expected when it came to plot and style.

Both films look great, because the restorations didn’t iron out the grain that gives these films added warmth and grit. I know it shouldn’t surprise me that a Gordon Parks film would be so gorgeous, his visual skill as photographer and filmmaker are immense, but I was especially stunned by the color composition in Shaft’s Big Score. These films will always be filed under Blaxploitation, but they are really gorgeously-produced, high-quality action films and the Blu-rays reveal that beautifully.

The John Shaft in these sequels is still tough, charismatic and resourceful, but the character doesn’t have the same edge. There was always a flicker of righteous anger in the 1971 Shaft. You don’t see the man who walks through traffic shouting at taxi cabs here. He’s more serene and much nicer to the ladies too. While I missed the zing of that brand of Shaft, it was interesting to see Roundtree develop the character and move him subtly in a different direction.

Shaft’s Big Score was my favorite of the two films. It’s got a slow build up, and lacks the riveting, gritty street-bound feel of the original, but it entertains in its own slick way. Roundtree seems more settled into the action hero mold and more appealing because of his gentler take on relating to the female sex. He even relies on one of his ladies to take the wheel during the climactic chase scene, which becomes increasingly ridiculous, and entertaining, as it progresses.

That chase scene is emblematic of what makes Shaft’s Big Score different. It’s less a document of a man working in the streets and more about building up to blood-pumping action. Roundtree is able to stay true to the essence of John Shaft, but when you add a boat and a helicopter to your chase scenes, it is definitely a different game.

Keep your eyes open during the casino scene to see the always distinguished director Parks in a cameo.

Shaft Goes to Africa is my least favorite of the original trio, but I appreciated the willingness to try something new with the character. It was a good gamble to assume that Roundtree was the true draw of the series and that he was versatile enough to play Shaft in a different milieu. Here, instead of a street-smart private dick, he’s more of a Bond-type hero fighting against human trafficking in Africa. There’s even a Q-like scene where he gets a custom-made weapon.

This film never quite falls into a rhythm though. Its story always feels a bit scattered. There are many good to great moments, but they don’t flow together. Many of the great moments are due to Vonetta McGee, who matches the charisma of her leading man and is the strongest female character to grace the series.

Overall, the original Shaft series fascinates me. Roundtree consistently proves his ability to mesmerize in any circumstances and he benefits from the essentially high production values and strong direction he receives here. While they vary in quality, there isn’t a bad film in the bunch.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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