dvd watch: From Vaudeville To Film Noir

by Leonard Maltin
February 3, 2011 5:30 AM
4 Comments
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I guess you could say my taste is eclectic, as I’m equally excited about a wide variety of DVDs that run the gamut from early-talkie musicals to the stark suggestiveness of Sam Fuller.

Let’s start with The Prowler, Joseph Losey’s 1951 compelling film noir that grabs you with its opening image and never lets go. Van Heflin stars as a bad cop—literally—who seduces a vulnerable married woman, played by Evelyn Keyes, in spite of her better judgment. These are complex, multi-layered characters and not just film noir stereotypes. Well received in its time, it has been rediscovered in the past year, since its restoration by UCLA Film and Television Archive, in conjunction with the Film Noir Foundation. VCI’s terrific new DVD retains the quality of the new 35mm print and offers several bonus features that enhance the experience of watching the movie. An excellent background piece by Steven Smith of Trailer Park traces its unusual history, involving hustling producer Sam Spiegel (then known as S.P. Eagle), co-producer John Huston (who wanted a good part for his then-wife, Keyes), and blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who isn’t credited onscreen but turns out to be present in the film in a way no one would guess. (I won’t give that tidbit away!) That colorful chronicler of dark lives James Ellroy refers to The Prowler as “perv noir,” and I must say he’s right. Van Heflin’s character is unusually nasty and makes no effort to—

—hide it, even when we first meet him, as a member of the police force. He and Keyes bring out every nuance of their troubled, and troubling, characters. The Prowler has much to offer, from its unpredictable storyline to its striking production design, which seems perfectly integrated with Losey’s visual style. The young director collaborated here with veteran cinematographer Arthur Miller, who started in the silent era, and the results are amazing. What a shame that Miller was forced to retire for health reasons right after completing this 17-day-shoot. (Production design is credited to the estimable Boris Leven, but I’ve read that animation director John Hubley, another blacklistee who worked with Losey that same year on his remake of M, contributed to this picture. Like Trumbo, he received no credit.)

In addition to the background piece, which also features noir expert Alan K. Rode, writer Denise Hamilton, and the late Christopher Trumbo talking about his father, there is a segment on the restoration process featuring the “czar of noir,” Eddie Muller, and a casually-shot but riveting monologue about the film and its creators by the great French filmmaker and cineaste Bertrand Tavernier. Listen and learn.

You can watch the original preview trailer for The Prowler, which is not only good, but an accurate representation of the picture, HERE.

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Since its inception the Warner Archive has made diehard film buffs happy by releasing scores of movies from the 1920s through the 1990s for the first time on DVD. For the second time they have dipped into their vast short subject library for a treasure trove of material: six jam-packed discs that comprise Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy. I hardly know where to begin to describe the contents: there are early-talkie novelty reels featuring show-business headliners like Lew Fields and Willie and Eugene Howard along with jazz greats like Red Nichols and his Five Pennies. You’ll see such bandleaders as Gus Arnheim, Tal Henry, Don Redman, and Phil Spitalny with the earliest incarnation of his “all-girl” orchestra. And the vaudevillians! I’m in seventh heaven watching novelty dance acts, dog acts, acrobats, and all the rest. Just watching the Four Step Brothers go through their routine in Barber Shop Blues is worth the price of admission. (And wait till you see the troupe that plays a gigantic xylophone contraption by dancing up and down on it and kicking its steps.)

There are skits featuring the likes of Patsy Kelly, shorts spotlighting the Duncan Sisters, and a series of one-reelers that start out to poke fun at antiquated silent pictures but wind up extolling the virtues of the era’s biggest stars. Two discs are devoted to the earliest Vitaphone shorts filmed in breathtaking three-strip Technicolor—the kind that pops off the screen. The first two feature comedian Leon Errol (Service with a Smile and Good Morning, Eve), followed by several starring the stupendously unfunny El Brendel. Child star Sybil Jason headlines a charming musical called Changing of the Guard, and Dick Foran joins a young Jane Wyman in a mini-Western musical called The Sunday Round-up.

If you love vintage show-business or early jazz, this set is a must. If you’ve never been exposed to this kind of entertainment, here is a fascinating window into the past. The quality of most of this material is astonishing, especially given its age. I don’t mean to sound greedy or ungrateful, but my feeling after watching all six discs in this set is: I want more!

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Samuel Fuller was one of a kind. From the late 1940s through the mid-1960s he wrote, produced, and directed a string of movies that bore his unmistakable imprint. They had the impact of a punch in the gut. Two of his more unusual efforts (and that’s really saying something) have just been released by the Criterion Collection: Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, both of which deal with characters in extreme situations (a reporter who checks himself into an insane asylum on the trail of a story, and a prostitute who moves to a new city, hoping to reinvent her life with a clean slate). They are vivid, sometimes lurid, and quite unlike films made by anyone else, then or now.

The Criterion discs offer some delicious extras, most notably a pair of fascinating interviews with the female star of both pictures, Constance Towers, in conversation with Charles Dennis. An accomplished singer and actress (and a strikingly beautiful woman) with a long list of credits, Towers is perhaps best remembered for her work onstage; she appeared on Broadway and toured for years with Yul Brynner in The King and I. She is often sought out for comments about John Ford, who cast her in The Horse Soldiers and Sergeant Rutledge, and who became godfather to two of her children. One might wonder if she had the same affection for Fuller, who turned her into a bald, bewigged prostitute—in what is possibly the most startling opening shot in movie history—and a stripper. Now we have our answer: she loved Fuller, and even went on a memorable fishing vacation with him, which she describes in the interview. She is quite articulate, and her memories of working on the films are lucid and revealing, on a personal and professional level. (Ford, whom she refers to as Pappy, visited the set of Shock Corridor when she was filming her striptease number!)

Shock Corridor also includes Adam Simon’s enjoyable 1996 documentary about Fuller, The Typewriter, The Rifle and the Movie Camera, featuring Tim Robbins, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Jim Jarmusch. The Naked Kiss offers even more of Fuller on camera, from a pair of French television series and Britain’s The South Bank Show. Watch the cigar-chomping filmmaker in his crowded home office and you’ll see the larger-than-life personality who created the unique images and dialogue in his films.

Both black & white features are shown at their best, in razor-sharp digital transfers (including the sporadic color stock footage used as hallucinatory images in Shock Corridor). The accompanying booklets have newly written essays, amusing artwork by Ghost World’s Daniel Clowes, and excerpts from Fuller’s highly entertaining autobiography.

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So much else to cover—and never enough time. I never got around to praising the superlative commentary track for Objective, Burma! on the Errol Flynn Adventures DVD set from last year. Rudy Behlmer, Frank Thompson, and Jon Burlingame offer a master class in film appreciation—backed by careful research and a lifetime of knowledge.

And I meant to spotlight Criterion’s superb treatment of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, which features the UCLA Film and Television Archives’ unique footage of the film in production, with Laughton directing his actors just offscreen. Preservationist Bob Gitt spent more than twenty years piecing this material together, and I was happy to interview him about that process for this DVD/Blu-ray release. (To read my original journal entry about Gitt’s unveiling of this material in 2002, click HERE.)

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If you haven’t dipped into The Elia Kazan Collection from Fox, you really should. I’m so glad that Warner Home Video is releasing his masterful, too-little-seen America, America as a single disc next week.

And admirers of the music of Raymond Scott, which infused so many Warner Bros. cartoons and has gathered a loyal following in recent years, should know that his son’s absorbing, highly personal documentary about the multifaceted musician, Deconstructing Dad, is now available online at scottdoc.com. It’s well worth checking out.

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4 Comments

  • JLewis | February 4, 2011 1:53 AMReply

    El Brendel may be, in theory, "unfunny" (and he may have flopped with some of his later Columbia comedies), but the two Technicolor 2-reelers featured on the Vitaphone set still had me in stitches, especially his "drag" performance on OKAY, JOSE. Yes, even films running only ten to twenty minutes in length can still suffer from the whole "parts are better than the whole" stigma, but you can't complain about wasting your time like you do with full-length features.

    It's high time you got to reviewing more of the Warner Archive compilation sets of "short subjects" (even if you covered a few like Robert Benchley before). After all, you're one of the few writers who even tackled the subject in print. (Yeah, my copy of THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS is getting dog-eared.) Like you said, not to sound greedy, but... yes... we need more!

    As much as I enjoy many MGM shorts (particularly the John Nesbitt "Passing Parades" and, of course, Benchley) and most boast excellent archival quality, the less frequently restored Vitaphone-Warner Bros. material is so prolific and endlessly entertaining. Still waiting to see more Robert Youngson compilation shorts, apart from the three titles already latched on as throwaway DVD add-ons. (Watched the DVD feature PETE KELLY'S BLUES once, but the ten-minute "extra" GADGETS GALORE too many times to count.) Also need to see more Sports Parades, travelogue 2-reelers and Cinema Scope "Scope-Gems" filmed by André de la Varre and others, with "voice of God" Marvin Miller narrating and all of that wonderfully slushy orchestration. Still have not seen a complete version of KEYSTONE HOTEL (1935) or the classic trip-up-the-Amazon JUNGLE TERROR (1949), among countless others. Now, these are the types of novelties they should bring back to movie theaters, not Mazda commercials and deafeningly loud trailers.

    Yes, some restoration work will be needed at times, but we aren't all picky for "digitally remastered" as long as some scratches are removed. A title like Owen Crump's CRUISE OF THE ZACA (1952) could use some tweaking since the version released years ago on THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD set is hardly stellar-looking. Also, UCLA must have a Technicolor print of the Oscar winning A BOY AND HIS DOG somewhere...

    Maybe... just maybe... if Time-Warner continues reissuing these (and perhaps reviving some RKO material as well), folks may take stock in other studio vaults like Sony/Columbia (despite releasing restored Three Stooges and Buster Keaton, there's still a treasure trove needing attention), Fox, Paramount or Universal. They could start out with a handful of Oscar nominees or "best of" assortments and see how things go. The recent TCM showings of Hal Roach comedies may have been another "test" to see if they too are still marketable to The Younger Generation.

  • Lem L. | February 3, 2011 10:49 AMReply

    Thanks so much for the news about the Raymond Scott DVD — can't wait!

  • Charles Bernstein | February 3, 2011 10:39 AMReply

    Great recommendations! I particularly love America, America--a real classic in beautiful B & W with a haunting score.

  • DBenson | February 3, 2011 10:03 AMReply

    I've been following Warner Archive's musical shorts collections, and I'm still a bit flabbergasted by the onscreen money in the Technicolor two-reelers. They were hardly spectacles, and they weren't always blessed with adequate scripts, but they often managed to look more lavish than many studio features. "Where the Stars Come Out" may not have been MGM grade, but there was a surprising amount of camera movement on some pretty big sets.

    Did these little extravaganzas actually make money? Were the studios just trying to keep contract people busy? Did new on/offscreen talent come out of these?

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