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3-D Blu-ray Review: “Gog” (1954)

Gog Blu

I’m all agog for Gog!

Film restorations come in all shapes and sizes. The restoration of Gog (1954), an obscure science fiction thriller shot in Natural Vision 3-D might not sound like much, but in its own way it’s as monumental as the restorations/reconstructions of such unimpeachable classics as Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

This is, of course, not to say Gog is as on the same artistic plane or as culturally significant as those movies but, when you boil it down, all movies, regardless of merit, deserve to be preserved and made available in a form as close as possible to the filmmakers’ original intentions, what audiences experienced in the best venues when they were new.

Gog is an unusual, nearly unique relic from its era and of its genre. The ‘50s sci-fi boom was still feeling its way when Gog was made. As Bill Warren notes in his essential examination of the genre at this time, Keep Watching the Skies!, the first half of the decade was dominated by mix of relatively adult big studio films produced with “nervous ‘A’” budgets (The Thing, The Day the Earth Stood Still, When Worlds Collide), and smaller but still ambitious, often independent productions (Rocketship X-M, Destination Moon), though there were from the beginning even cheaper exploitation pictures targeting less demanding audiences (Flight to Mars, Cat-Women of the Moon).

Generally though, most of these sci-fi films from the first half of the ’50 were movies made for grownups, and not almost exclusively children and teenagers. Gog, despite all its neat-o gadgetry, was a rare venture into true science fiction, not the science fantasy that makes up nearly all of what today is regarded as sci-fi cinema and TV. Producer George Pal got the ball rolling with Destination Moon (1950), a sincere attempt to realistically, plausibly dramatize what an expedition to the moon might actually be like, based on the science of the time. Though critically and commercially successful, it didn’t spur like-minded films.

Gog, along with the other two, vaguely related Ivan Tors-produced features that preceded it, The Magnetic Monster (1953) and Riders to the Stars (1954), were exceptions. Gog in particular serves as a prototype for the tiny handful of hard-science science fiction thrillers that followed, particularly John Sturges’s The Satan Bug (1965) and Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971), movies in which real and theoretical science actually play an important role in their stories.

In color and 1.66:1 widescreen as well as 3-D, Gog had the misfortune of bad timing, released as it was after the vogue for 3-D had ended, and CinemaScope’s wide screen and stereophonic sound had won that decade’s great “format war.” Despite its impressive 3-D cinematography, Gog is understood to have played in 3-D in just a handful of movie theaters in Los Angeles; the rest of the country could see it only “flat,” in two dimensions. Later, it was sold to television but, even worse, these 16mm prints were in black-and-white. The “left eye” camera negative was mislaid and for decades the 3-D Gog was presumed lost forever.

Indefatigable 3-D enthusiast, researcher, and historian Bob Furmanek, founder of the 3-D Film Archive, located a faded Pathé color 35mm release print of the “left eye” in 2001, which was eventually paired with less problematic right eye film elements provided by Gog’s current owners, MGM, and exhibited at a 3-D festival in Los Angeles some years back. This led to a painstaking restoration of Gog culminating with its Kino Lober Blu-ray release, and the results are stupendous. Unless you were living in Southern California 62 years ago, this is your first opportunity to see Gog as originally intended. Though it has been shown flat on television, released as a (again flat) video-on-demand DVD, and even sold in an awful, faux 3-D DVD release from bootleg video dealers, this new Blu-ray not only presents Gog as it was meant to be seen, but the picture’s genuine merits are much more readily apparent.

Like The Magnetic Monster and Riders to the Stars, Gog concerns the OSI, the “Office of Scientific Investigation.” In this case, OSI security agent David Sheppard (Richard Egan) is assigned to look into a series of baffling, gruesome murders and acts of sabotage being committed at an underground, multi-level laboratory beneath the New Mexico desert where a space station is being planned. Joanna Merritt (Constance Dowling, Mrs. Ivan Tors) is another OSI already working undercover at the facility, and she and laboratory supervisor Dr. Van Ness (Herbert Marshall) give Sheppard the grand tour of the gadget-filled place.

Most of the gadgets, activated by unseen operators, are behind the deaths. Dr. Hubertus (Michael Fox), for instance, is frozen to death in his own deep-freeze chamber where he’s been conducting cryo-hibernation experiments, and grimly transformed into a veritable block of ice before tipping over and literally shattering like glass. Another scientist is nearly burned to a crisp by her own heat ray, which through a series of mirrors taps into the sun’s rays.

Eventually, the murders are traced to Gog and Magog, by 1954 standards realistic, non-anthromorphic robots remotely controlled by the lab’s central computer, NOVAC. (Was Magog unhappy with this inequitable billing arrangement, I wonder?)

Hungarian-born Ivan Tors (Iván Törzs) had a long film and television career in which he became particularly associated with fact-based science fiction, marine stories, animal-centric shows, or some combination of two or more of these elements. Among his credits: the TV series Science Fiction Theatre, Sea Hunt, Flipper, and Gentle Ben, and the movies Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion and Around the World Under the Sea. His company also did the underwater second-unit work for the James Bond blockbuster Thunderball.

Tors’s sci-fi projects are usually regarded as sincere but tame, with an overemphasis on technology and verisimilitude at the expense of drama. That’s true to some extent with Gog, which at times resembles an elementary school trip to the Science Center. And yet, despite a sluggish second act, it more than compensates with several particularly gruesome opening murders and an action-packed climax.

The movie is cheap compared to big studio pictures, reportedly costing just $250,000 and shot over just 15 days at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California. If those figures are accurate then Gog is a remarkable achievement as the money is all up there on the screen, and there’s much obvious effort to make every set and gadget visually interesting, even though the budget was too low to quite pull it off some of the time

What’s remarkable in watching Gog now is to see just how many of these then not-quite fanciful scientific concepts and innovations have since come to pass, and in many cases greatly miniaturized and improved upon far beyond what seem remotely possible at the time. Equally fascinating is how Gog, clunky though it may be, equally accurately anticipates the cinematic future. The laboratory is a ‘50s version of the uncannily similar underground labs featured in The Satan Bug and especially The Andromeda Strain, while Gog and Magog are like the grandparents of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, the robot drones from Silent Running (1972), themselves distant cousins of R2-D2. Today we take automatic sliding doors for granted, but Gog may have been their first onscreen introduction in a science fiction film, more than ten years before they wowed audiences on Star Trek.

Gog 1-sheet

The restoration of Gog is almost miraculous yet exactly the kind of thing that should be commonplace instead of an anomaly. Essentially: MGM owns the films as part of its United Artists catalog but their holdings included only film elements for the “right eye” half of the 3-D version. When they licensed the title to Kino Lorber, the 3-D Film Archive offered their left-eye elements along with a bid to restore the picture to its original state. Various technical experts and companies became involved, with Greg Kintz given the arduous challenge of matching the faded left-eye print with the right-eye elements provided by MGM.

The presentation is basically flawless, with extremely impressive sharpness and bright, primary colors throughout, while the 1.66:1 framing is much more compositionally eye-pleasing.

The 3-D itself is on one hand less aggressive than, say, The Charge at Feather River or, more recently, Comin’ at Ya! (1981), the fun, neo-spaghetti Western in which no 3-D splurge is left unexploited. At the same time, Gog uses 3-D in consistently interesting, sometimes innovative ways, taking advantage of depth modern 3-D movies, strangely, often don’t do at all. In Gog, for instance, many of the sets are deliberately layered closer to and farther away from the camera, rooms and compartments sometimes separated by glass and doorways. Seen flat Gog always looked unusual but not in the good sense. In 3-D, however, the set design is often striking.

Further enhancing the Blu-ray is a superb Restoration Comparison that demonstrates just how challenging it was to bring Gog back to life; archival interviews from 2003 with director Herbert L. Strock and cinematographer Lothrop B. Worth, who sadly didn’t live to see this gorgeous restoration; and, best of all, an information-packed, typically humorous audio commentary by Tom Weaver, the go-to guy for such things. He apologizes up front for having less to say about Gog than his other commentary tracks for lack of existing archive documents but you’d never know that for its wealth of information. He’s joined by Bob Furmanek and David Schecter to discuss the film’s restoration and score, respectively.

As other reviewers have pointed out, rights holders of other classic 3-D titles – Are you listening Wade Williams? – really need to seek out the 3-D Archive and its team of talented and devoted artisans and scholars in providing them access, through sub-licensing or other participation, to preserve these movies before it’s too late. Gog may not be Intolerance, Greed, The Magnificent Ambersons, Vertigo or Spartacus, but it’s an underrated, ambitious little film more than worth the effort to save it, and with this and other 3-D Blu-ray titles in which the 3-D Archive has been associated with, have more than demonstrated the stunning results with which they are capable.

Gog-marquee

Bronson Gate

The Seven Sisters: Movie Studios and Their Backlots

It was never about the movies.

Few people realize this but the movies themselves are only the end result, a byproduct of the factories which created them.  It sounds downright sacrilegious, considering the vast emotional weight we place on our cinematic entertainments but trust me, the most momentous and important thing Hollywood has given the world isn’t a movie at all, any movie, but rather Hollywood itself. That is, Hollywood’s movie studios and our ideas about them.

It’s true, behind the tall walls at Hollywood’s seven studios have been created no less than our very ideas of what we are, where we live and what makes up our world.  And none of this has been accomplished by the movies at all, but rather by the studios, the physical factories which birthed these movies.  Most of our ideas about sociology, history, architecture, and geography were created inside these gates. The movies created there were the only the medium through which these messages were delivered.

MGM

“When I was a kid I took a trip to Los Angeles with my parents and at the time MGM was offering, for a little while, a tour of their studio,” remembers writer Stephen X. Sylvester. “I spent an afternoon there and it changed my life. We went to Disneyland the next day and I was so disappointed. Compared to MGM, Disneyland felt like pale Xerox of a movie studio. Real life felt like a pale Xerox of as movie studio. It still does.”

If one was to place a push-pin in the intersection of Hollywood and Vine on a map of Los Angeles – and then to place additional pins at the historic (if not always original) sites of the seven major film studios, the “Seven Sisters” as they are still referred to, that compose the industry, a jagged triangle would be formed. Furthest afield would be MGM, which was nine miles through dicey LA traffic from Hollywood Blvd. Twentieth Century-Fox would make up the other side of this triangle at seven and a half miles. Warner Bros., to the north, is just over four miles away. Universal, at the base of the Cahuenga Pass, just over three. Paramount and RKO  lie to the south a mile and a half away. Columbia, slightly west at only half a mile from ground zero would complete the physical picture. (Disney, the last sister, rose to prominence as a major as RKO waned)

A visitor to either modern day or historic Hollywood however, would have a hard time doing more that staring through the fences at these studios. True, several of the majors offer, or have offered, public tours of their lots, and one studio, Universal, even has its own amusement park. But Hollywood’s studios have always been closed-off cities with their own rules and folklore.

Movie studio backlots are the sections of a studio which distinguish that studio from any other factory, industrial site or manufacturing center. In the history of the world there has never been another business where entire secret cities have regularly needed to be manufactured and then never used as what they appear to portray. If you want any business tips then visit to Cofe Winchester blogs. Also, click here for best information related to the business. Sets on a studio backlot may need to look like Shanghai at midnight or Dodge City at high noon, but only in the most superficial way possible.  A backlot version of the Grand Hotel need only look like the Grand Hotel – or like an audience’s idea of what the Grand Hotel needs to look like. And in fact, for most of us, that which makes us think we are familiar with the Grand Hotel is probably born not from reality – but from watching films set – but not filmed, at the Grand Hotel.

Sadly, in modern Hollywood a studios’ signature architecture is becoming an endangered species.  Like Route 66, which once spider-webbed across the nation and now survives only in our imagination and in fit and starts, backlots still exist at all the studios, if you look for them, but only in pieces. Even in an a era of computer created virtual backlots modern studios have discovered that it is indeed practical to keep limited standing sets on their properties and, if you have a friend, who can get you a pass to visit, take a public tour, or if you can climb a fence, you can still visit them. The experience is well worthwhile, both alien and achingly familiar. Time does not stand still on a backlot, only in the films and memories which they produce. But if your mood and the sunlight through the smog and the time of day are right while you are there, a modern backlot can feel just like it must have felt in the past.  Just like it can feel in the movies.

Before its too late then, let’s pick up that map of Hollywood again and visit Hollywood’s’ mythical, mysterious studios, not as they were in the movies, but as they physically exist today. And as they once were…

In some ways MGM built the ultimate, prototypical, backlot. Producer Thomas Ince, credited with being the inventor of the modern, factory-styled movie studio – and movie studio backlot – opened the property in Culver City in 1915 in partnership with fellow pioneers D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett. Corporate wrangling resulted in the lot eventually being acquired by Samuel Goldwyn, and after a 1924 merger, by the newly created MGM. Exterior sets were constructed at the western or “back” part of the studio property as needed.  Someone, probably plant manager J.J. Cohn, started recycling these sets for later pictures when it was discovered that a sign or a title card or another angle could turn a street created to look like one location into something entirely different.  The era of the backlot was born.

MGM’s backlots were divided into 3 properties.  The first and oldest was the real estate on the edge of the original studio property, aka; “Lot One.” Lot One’s backlot was distinguished by a man-made lake which was used regularly into the 1940’s. But many of the surrounding sets were gradually moved across the street to the 40-acre “Lot Two.” Lot Two eventually contained a variety of European and Asian districts, the industry’s largest (7-acre) “New York” Street, and a working railroad with three depots of progressively larger and more modern vintage and culminating in a vast Grand Central Station replica.  The “Small Town” or “Andy Hardy Street” was perhaps the busiest of all backlot sets at all studios, owing to MGM’s many pictures extolling the virtues of rural communities, which it copied, and which copied it, and which still existed all across the United States at the time.

Up the road a few blocks was the even larger (65-acre) “Lot Three” which itself was surrounded by the smaller satellite lots “Four,” Five,” “Six,” and even “Seven.”  Lot Three contained fewer sets than Lot Two, but they were generally larger than those at any other studio. A man-made tropical jungle and lake was infested with real animals and marine life, which apparently couldn’t tell the difference. A tree-line road was so generic that it was used by virtually every film of every historic period that the studio produced.  Most studios could boast of a Western street somewhere on their backlot, but MGM had 3 separate frontier era districts, even though the parent company produced comparatively few Westerns. Adjacent was the famous “St. Louis Street” which most production designers agreed was the ultimate masterpiece of all studio backlots.  The eight houses constructed there by Cedric Gibbons, Lemuel Ayers, and John Martin Smith charmed everyone who visited the location or saw any movie which utilized it. To see this set, everyone agreed, was to experience a feeling of longing for a past which no one alive today, or even in 1944 when it was constructed and when the world was at war, ever really experienced firsthand.  The nostalgic, heightened reality these homes embodied and represented could not have been created, or experienced anywhere but on a backlot.  The set was planned, designed and created to be better than real life.

Universal 1947

Universal Studios in 1947.

Across town and on the other side of our map, Universal Studios held a very early backlot.  Founder Carl Laemmle purchased the land which would become the largest movie studio on earth in 1914 for $3,500.  He took satisfaction in knowing that real history had taken place near his new property in 1846 when Mexico officially ceded the territory of California to the United States right across the street from his office. The grand opening party (Universal’s, not California’s) was held on March 15, 1915.

Universal, despite its size, (various acquisitions and mergers eventually bloated the lot to 415 acres) has the disadvantage of being built on the side of a hill. It is the only Hollywood studio where golf carts have to be gas-powered in order to make it up the steeper grades. Therefore, the backlot has been limited over the decades in size and shape by the natural terrain. Various sets, particularly residential streets, have been built or moved onto the hillsides, but areas representing cities have historically had to be constructed along a flat, narrow band of real estate between the bottom of the hill to the south and the Los AngelesRiver on the north. Lankershim Blvd. on the west and Barham Blvd. to the east provide man-made borders on the other two sides.

The front lot was constructed along Lankershim and consists of 31 soundstages, post-production and technical facilities.  Walking east onto the backlot from there today an explorer immediately finds oneself in a wonderful reconstruction of New York City, which oddly has mountains on one side and a nearly dry, paved river bed on the other. Unfortunately, most of today’s “New York Street” is of a comparatively recent vintage. The original street was lost in an arson fire set by a disgruntled security guard in 1990 (some of which itself burned again in 2008) and what the cameras (and guests on the company’s “studio tours”) actually see is a copy which mimics and in some cases surpasses the original sets.

All of this, of course, begs what eventually must be asked when thinking about backlots.  At which point does a backlot set, always in a constant state of flux, stop being the original structure and become a copy or a new building with an entirely new identity?

While we ponder this question on our tour, this pseudo-historic New York evolves into a small town street with courthouse.  A residential street, apparently designed as part of this same set, was removed in 1981 so that production offices could be constructed.  Some of the houses from this street, familiar from American television series like The Munsters, Leave It to Beaver and Bachelor Father were moved up onto the hillside, where they remain, in truncated form to this day. Part of a castle once stood nearby.

A “Mexican Village” complete with cobblestone streets, corral, and bridge lead, appropriately, into the studio’s (and Hollywood’s) last surviving Western set.  Universal publicists claim that their “6 Points Texas” Western street is the oldest working spot on their backlot and the most filmed spot on the planet, although most of the current structures are actually of relatively recent vintage. But a walk down this weathered, grey strip, and the nearby “Denver Street” with its wooden sidewalks and dirty storefronts, leaves one feeling that this is indeed the real thing: an “actual” Hollywood  location, not a recreation for tourists or a dude ranch pastiche.  And the affection this area inspires is not for the actual Old West, but for Hollywood’s impression of that West, and for the Western itself. So a glance up at the company’s “Black Tower” office complex, which looms over the slat-board facades and casts its shadow over her ersatz frontier streets somehow is not as incongruous as it should be.

Let’s move on. A lake and a smaller pond fronts a New England fishing village.

Farther over are the remnants of a European Street alleged to go back to 1919, although most of the extant streets and structures actually date to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and, let’s be honest: nearly all of them are certainly much more recent than that.

The pseudo-Gladiator “Spartacus Square” stands on the extreme east side of the studio’s lower lot. Walking behind this impressive edifice, where the trams full of Hollywood’s happy tourists can’t go, the tired traveler sees not a Roman Senate in progress but crushed cola cans and dirty paper plates left behind by some long-ago craft service staffer.  Yards away, traffic can be heard buzzing by on Barham Boulevard behind the razor wire fence.

Across the street from Universal, and running parallel to the Hollywood Hills is the massive (one often hears the word “sprawling” used) 110-acre complex still occupied by Warner Bros. Warners looks today, at the sunrise of the 21st century, more like a traditional movie studio than any of the other majors, even Universal, where studio construction seems to be dictated by what a tourist expects to see while in Hollywood.  In fact, at Warner Bros., it almost seems as if the studio was built after the clichés were created only in order to live up to them   In any case, the wide streets and orderly rows of soundstages which greet a modern visitor constitute virtually the same view which Humphrey Bogart would have seen when he first drove onto the lot in 1932.

The Warner Bros. lot.

The Warner Bros. lot.

WB 1931

The auto gate on Olive Blvd. (or “Gate 2”) has been used, for decades, as the quintessential movie studio entrance in pictures.  Less ornate, and therefore less identifiable with a specific lot than Paramount’s regal Marathon Ave. entrance, it has shown up both in the studio’s own product - A Star is Born (1954), It’s a Great Feeling (1949), Blazing Saddles (1974) – and rented out as a set to other companies: Universal’s Bowfinger (1999), Disney’s Ed Wood (1994), Columbia’s The Way We Were (1973), etc.  One can cross all the way onto the backlot from this single main artery.

By the late 1940s, this backlot, although comparatively small when measured alongside to the kingdoms at Fox and MGM, must have been astonishing in its variety and scope.  A visitor in, let’s say, 1946, could wander down “Brownstone Street” onto the six blocks of New York Burroughs and find hidden behind the that set’s eastern wall the formidable Stage 21, at one time the world’s largest soundstage, where inside floated two complete ships, each 130 feet long! A railroad shed, with two locomotives, exterior track and a working indoor station sat behind it. Farther along, “Bonneyfeather Street,” a European coastal area would twist would and spiral through a tangle of alleys and morph into a big city “Tenement Street,”complete with fire escapes, streetlights, parking meters, neon signage, and machine gun pockmarks on many of the walls left over from the studio’s gangster dramas.

“Dijon Street,” a mid-eastern/Arabic community, was built in 1930 for a long-lost early version of Kismet and part of this street can be seen as Casablanca in 1943.  “English  Street” runs south for two blocks and terminates at a warehouse/landing strip which stores a small fleet of prop airplanes. On the other side of this hanger can be found a “Viennese Street,” which would be rebuilt into “Madison Avenue” in 1949 for Life with Father and some of which survives today as “French Street.”  An early version of the studio’s current “Midwestern” or “Midvale Street” with residential section, curls behind this thoroughfare and to the east.

Behind this is a “Norwegian  Street” which, with a disarming sense of logic, eventually becomes “Canadian  Street,” a sort of Western town, only with snow. (Oddly the studio would not have a permanent “Western Street” on lot until 1956).  The backlot then curls west and back into itself with a rather upscale “Philadelphia Street” before terminating into what was then Soundstage 20 (and which today is the Media Archive Building).  Taking this 1946 trek would surely leave any exhausted visitor wondering what continent, what world, he was in.

In addition to the mazes and cul-de-sacs of standing sets found on the main lot, Warner, like most of the other studios, kept a ranch facility.  Theirs was a 2500-acre tract in Calabasas.

Columbia 1940

Columbia Studios, 1940.

Columbia Pictures represented the outstanding rags to riches success story among the majors.  The company started out among the most miserly and penny-pinching of the low-rent studios which clustered up, and then withered away and died, in the poverty row district of Hollywood along Sunset and Gower Streets.  Columbia’s early product was indistinguishable from the films being ground out by any her neighbors in this district.  But she did have something all of her fellow unfortunates lacked.  And that was Harry Cohn. Cohn was regarded by his peers with awe, derision, envy, admiration, hatred—just about anything you might want to say about the man, good or bad would probably be accurate.  His penny-pinching ways were much remarked upon in Hollywood, yet in the depths of the Great Depression, Cohn was the only mogul who refused to back an industry-wide measure which would have halved the salaries of anyone making less than $50 a week. Fortunately for his well-maintained reputation, this act of kindness was not widely publicized.

Cohn literally and determinedly pulled and dragged his grubby little company up from the squalor – and in an astonishingly short amount of time, even for such a young industry, managed to anoint her as a major force in the industry, first with profits, then with respectability, and finally with Academy Awards and genuine if  begrudging prestige.

The physical lot he did this on certainly reflects the company’s hand-to-mouth origins.  Cohn’s plant was the smallest, physically, of any of the seven sisters.  Even at its largest it was only a city block deep by half a block wide.  Columbia Studios always looked like a hodgepodge ghetto of squalid little offices and, eventually, 14 over-worked and mostly closet-size soundstages.

Any sort of significant backlot here was nearly impossible; consequently, in 1934 Cohn purchased a ranch facility a half dozen miles away from his chaotic fiefdom up in Burbank. Other movie ranches, Warners, Fox’s, RKO’s, Paramount’s, were usually hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres across, containing terrain suitable for any sort of location.  Cohn’s cut-rate equivalent was a whopping 40 acres (a second 40-acre parcel was quickly sold off). In 1952’s High Noon, it is possible to spot the telephones poles and post war tract houses spiraling across the “Western” landscape during the famous crane shot near the climax.

Cohn’s spread however, did evolve into one of the more interesting satellite backlots.  Perhaps because space was so limited, and budgets so low, many of the facades constructed there saw an inordinate amount of duty over an inordinate number of years.  A single curved block of residential homes, which either had no backs, or which had two fronts so as to be eligible for double duty, started appearing in features from the late ’30s but really reached iconic status from the 1950s onward when Screen Gems, Columbia’s television division (started in 1949) began shooting their domestic-themed sitcoms there.

Until this street is experienced first hand, it is impossible to imagine that the home of TV’s Dennis the Menace is the same set used as the home of Donna Reed.  Or that the house next to it was Blondie’s home, the I Dream of Jeannie house, and the home where Father Knows Best.  Or that the house next to that was used in both Bewitched and The Partridge Family.  Or that the Bewitched home is next to the house used in the Lethal Weapon film series, as a not-so-stately Wayne manor in a Batman serial, and as the home of both Gidget and Hazel!  In 1999 this entire, surreal city block stared in the feature film Pleasantville. The plot concerned a strange place inside a black and white television where old sitcoms flower magically to life.

The real world however, could not be kept out. The turmoil the movie industry faced in general in the 1970s hit Columbia particularly hard.  In 1972, the young business school grads who had inherited Cohn’s cramped offices on Gower Street vacated many of them to cohabitate with Warner Bros. up in Burbank.  They turned the original lot, briefly, into a tennis club. In 1998,  Columbia moved across town again, this time to its current digs, the old MGM Lot One. The Columbia Ranch stayed part of Warner Bros., which it remains today.

rko manhole

RKO was in a similar situation to Columbia, although “the biggest little major” always had the prestige and cache that Columbia originally lacked.  The studio was the first major created after the coming of sound --as its logo, that of a beeping radio tower astride the globe seemed to testify.  An actual, physical replica of this insignia used to stand on the corner of Melrose and Gower Streets, astride one of the company’s soundstages.  The studio underneath this logo was hardly any bigger than Columbia, which lay only a few blocks north but in a decidedly shoddier neighborhood.  And as with Columbia, it seemed in the early days that the executives inside would be forced by the cramped locale to build their exterior sets off-lot in the San Fernando Valley.

Instead, those executives purchased an entire, preexisting studio complex, actually another old Thomas Ince lot, also in Culver City, in January 1931 – instantly fortifying the company with an additional 11 soundstages and a spectacular standing backlot as well.  Most RKO pictures from this era were shot at one or both of these facilities, with the interiors often being shot on Gower Street and the exteriors out on “40 Acres.”  In 1937 the studio also purchased 88 additional acres in the San Fernando Valley – Encino, actually.

With postwar hard times, the Hollywood lots were purchased by General Tire and Rubber in 1955 and shortly thereafter RKO ceased active production. Lucile Ball, once a perky RKO starlet achieved the dream of every starlet by buying her old studio for her own production company, Desilu, in 1956.

Paramount Pictures was RKO’s next door neighbor.  In 1967 Paramount executives bought the property and removed the wall between the two lots.  The surviving studio now occupies the entire 65-acre compound.  Even today, a walk across Paramount’s grounds will reveal ghostly touches of RKO, including the manhole covers on the west side of the studio, which still say “RKO” (One wonders if there are any companies today, however affluent, that would go to the expense of putting their names on sewer fixtures that would be seen only by employees!) Even the famous Paramount studio water tower was in fact once part of the original RKO property.  The beeping radio tower facing the street has been removed too, of course, but the globe it stood on paradoxically remains. It looks down on a very different world indeed.

Paramount, 1976.

Paramount, 1976.

Like RKO, Paramount, has always suffered somewhat in that their location, right in the center of Hollywood, became valuable quicker than the outlaying suburbs of Culver City and Burbank. With the “movie boom” of the teens and twenties came escalating real estate prices.  And, so relatively early in the game the studios with the most desirable and centralized locations, responsible for the sudden local growth to begin with, found themselves with no place to expand beyond their current locations.  Paramount’s lot was big enough for this to not be as much of a problem as it was for RKO and for Columbia, but they never had the space for the sprawling backlots which could be found at some of the other, outlying studios.

A look at the Paramount product tends to bear this out.  Most of the studio’s pictures are rather stage-bound.  There are few exteriors, and these are often soundstage exteriors, with painted backdrops and process screens substituting for the real thing. Artistically, this somewhat artificial mise en scene gave the studio’s pictures a definite and recognizable “house style.” And yet this look was definitely an economic choice rather than an artistic one.

To alleviate their lack of suitable exteriors, Paramount purchased a 2,400-acre ranch near Malibu in 1927 although perhaps due to its somewhat distant location it wasn’t used as much as other studio ranches. Sets included a New England Street, a frontier village and Calvary fort.  They actually sold the property in 1953 but continued to lease parts of it, along with other studios and independent producers, for decades.   Today the property is owned by the state. A western town, constructed shortly after the Paramount era ended still stands on the grounds. Television’s Carnivale and Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman have been comparatively recent tenants.

The primary backlot area Paramount constructed on their main lot was paradoxically built near the center of the studio and buttressed up against the wall looking over into RKO. Closest to that iconic main gate, which everyone still associates with the studio (and which, in case you ever wondered, was constructed between August 24 and September 10, 1926) stood, until the mid 1970’s, a smallish version of that must-have on every studio lot, a small-town business district. Until 1979, a “Western Street” stood on real estate where a massive parking lot sprawls today (Amusing but unsubstantiated rumors at the time held that Paramount was afraid to dismantle their Western town while John Wayne still lived!). The hundreds of black BMW’s which now bake under the California sun occupy ground where many a cinematic cowboy found immortality or oblivion.  A most interesting feature about this set was the artificial mountain range which buttressed the north western flank of the set, and kept audiences from realizing that unlike some of the street’s suburban cinematic neighbors, Paramount was in the middle of a city – even if that city was Hollywood.

A 75-foot-high sky backdrop (The original was built in 1947, the surviving version is a copy) still stands on the northern edge of the studio’s impressive “New York Street.”  At five acres and with five separate and distinct districts, it is one of the most impressive sets of its kind.  Unfortunately, the set which visitors and film goers see today is actually a copy of an older “New York Street” which was destroyed in a fire in 1983.  Happily, in 1991, it was rebuilt.

Incidentally, the South LA community of Paramount was founded in 1946 and was in fact named after the studio.

20th Century-Fox backlot and tank, 1940.

20th Century-Fox backlot and tank, 1940.

Twentieth Century-Fox is the studio which most tried to emulate the success of MGM.  Physically, their lot, located west of Beverly Hills in a community later and tellingly called Century City, was closer to Metro’s in size, ambition and even geographically, than any other.  In one respect at least, Fox was actually superior in that the entire property, almost 300 acres at one point, was located on one large parcel of land, and not broken up or eviscerated by distance or highways  (although Olympic Blvd. cut the plant into two distinct halves).  Some of this real estate was never really developed for production, although the open land must have come in handy.  Oil wells, real ones, not props, dotted the eastern side of the lot for decades. Quality-wise, the Fox pictures, while not really inferior to MGM, often felt so because their predominant choice of genres; musicals and period pictures, seemed consciously designed to echo the pictures made down the road in Culver City

The front lot, as befitting its (near-) Beverly Hills location, was beautifully maintained and landscaped.  The “sound” stages – for in fact they were the first of their kind constructed for sound anywhere – decorated with ornate statuary and scrollwork, looked more like a carefully regulated civil engineering project than a factory.  At least the early ones did.  The later stages are less gaudy, giving the whole place a sort of Oz-meets-the-Bowery-Boys lopsidedness.

Our traveler walking across the backlot could have encountered, depending on which decade he took the trip, any of the following:  “Bernadette Street” (from The Song of Bernadette, 1943) a French village, a Roman “slave market” set,   an enormous and pillared “Colonial Home,” a “Spanish Street,” a “Swiss Set,” a “German Village,” a partial castle with a moat. “Algerian Street” was a sort of Ali Baba/Jerusalem compound which sat behind the “English Garden of Charles II” – which was beautifully decked out with swimming pool and rolling lawns.  Behind this all was a long “New York Street” which dated to 1931.  “Tombstone Street” was the ambiguous Western village; It rested across from the “Alaska Town” and the “New England Street.” All of this finally led to the company’s back gate on Santa Monica Blvd. – a real Los Angeles street by the way, not a backlot.  Commuters on this street for years could see part of the elaborate Titanic model constructed for the 1953 picture peeking over the fence.

The East Lot, on the other side of the soundstage sector, contained the “New” “New York Street,” A section of Railroad, a “Compound” or fortress set, and a vast section of desert.  The Chicago set from In Old Chicago (1938) also stood in this sector and covered nearly six acres.  This area was redressed in 1944 and doubled for a gas-lit London in The Lodger. The “Chicago Lake” stood on one end and was repeatedly drained and refilled to portray every body of water on the planet for the 25 years.  “The Waterways,” a series of locks and canals also stood nearby.  “Jones Street” the studio’s all important residential street, also stood over here.

As if every location in the known world was not covered on-lot somewhere, Fox also maintained a ranch near the Paramount Ranch in Malibu.  They purchased the property in 1946, after leasing real estate in the area for several years.  The studio sold the property to the State of California in 1974.

Fox was the first studio to suffer physically from the contractions the film industry faced in the 1960s and ’70s.  The enormous overhead accrued by Cleopatra which was shooting in Europe in 1963, literally forced the moguls running the studio back in California to begin selling off some of their now-trendy Westside real estate upon which the studio had been built in order to meet payroll.

The acres of sets and landscaped lawns toppled over.  The lakes were drained. The palaces and kingdoms were disassembled.  In their place rose the skyscrapers and shopping malls and law firms of CenturyCity.  As recently as the mid-80’s, the beautiful commissary where Tyrone Power and Shirley Temple had once supped was halved to build a monolithic office tower.  One of these skyscrapers, decades later, would one day house MGM.

By 1969, when Fox was producing Hello Dolly, there was no backlot left on which to construct the elaborate turn-of-the-century New York Street the production called for.  Instead, the sets were built on the front lot; in the parking lots, across the lawns, on top of the offices and over the front of the administration buildings where the decision had been made to dismantle the studio in the first place.  It was as if, ghoulishly, those administrators, having devoured the backlots, the sinew and very flesh of the studio, now found themselves surrounded, entombed, and eaten by the very thing, the very flickering ghost they thought they had destroyed.

Many of the minor studios and several of the rental lots constructed permanent exterior set at various times and of varying degrees of interest and complexity. The Republic lot in Studio City, which survives and is now owned by CBS, being a particularly notable example.  Notable sets on this property included, naturally, several large Western streets, and the lagoon later used in the TV series Gilligan’s Island.  Part of a residential street survives today.

Powerful independent producers Sam Goldwyn and David O. Selznick also kept standing backlots on their property.  Goldwyn’s contained a few blocks of city streets and a small town district.  A “New York Street” lasted there into the late-’70s.

Selznick leased the “40 acres” Thomas Ince backlot of which RKO was the longtime landlord (and which for the record, was actually 28 acres) He burned down most of his standing sets spectacularly  on camera for Gone With The Wind (1939) Cannily, he then built his Atlanta sets over the ashes for that picture.

These vaguely “southern” facades saw duty for decades, most prominently on The Andy Griffith Show for American television.  At various times the backlot also contained the Hogan’s Heroes prisoner’s compound (built on the site of GWTW’s Tara), the Gomer Pyle Army barracks, a Western village, a jungle (utilized in RKO’s  Tarzan film series), an Arabian village, and detailed New York and Chicago Streets (kept very busy in The Untouchables TV series). The backlot portion of the studio, which was located near the end of Ince Blvd., was torn down in 1976 and is now an industrial park whose warehouses are used by a space-starved film industry for television production.

The Disney lot, 1959.

The Disney lot, 1959.

The other major independent producer of the era was, of course, Walt Disney.

Disney had little need for a standing backlot until the early 1950s.  Before this, most of his sets were, like most of his stars, painted cells animated for the camera. “I’ve always admired you” Alfred Hitchcock was reputed have told Disney at an apocryphal Hollywood party in the ’40s. “If you don’t like your actors, you can tear them up.”

The first Disney studio was located at 2719 Hyperion Ave in Hollywood (a grocery store today) and contained no facilities for live-action production.  Disney moved his operations to a 51-acre tract he had paid $100,000 for in Burbank in 1940 after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Designer Ken Webber crafted all of the original buildings, imbuing the lot with a campus-like unity alien to the random hodge-podges of architectural chaos that existed at any other studio. The first soundstage was constructed at this time and was used for the occasional live action or live action/animation hybrid produced by the studio.  Stage 2 was constructed in 1949 and was used for live action features and television, including Dragnet (an original tenant) and “The Mickey Mouse Club.”  Stage 3 was built in 1954 and includes the underwater tank used extensively for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  The cavernous Stage 4 was built for Darby O’Gill and the Little People in 1958 and later subdivided for TV to become 4 and 5 (1988), Stage 6 and 7 were not completed until 1997.

In 1959, even as he started building a backlot on his own studio, Disney purchased a 700-acre ranch in Santa Clarita and started building sets there as well, mostly of the Western variety.  Golden Oaks Ranch, as it is called, and which Disney is still developing, remains a valuable location, not just for Disney but for all of the real estate-starved modern studios

On his Burbank lot, an early California pueblo set was constructed in 1957 for use in the Zorro TV series and became the first permanent standing set on the property.  It contained several blocks of cobblestone streets, a fountain, a fort, and a town square.  The result was versatile enough to be successfully redressed into a French olive plantation for Monkeys Go Home (1967) and a British village in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).   It was demolished in the mid-eighties and replaced, inspirationally, by the current “Zorro Parking Structure.”

A “Western Street” was constructed in 1958.  It too was rebuilt several times over the decades and stood in for the Irish countryside in Darby O’Gill and the Little People, (1959) and a beachfront fishing village in Pete’s Dragon (1977 — complete with ocean!)  “Western Street” was bulldozed in 1988.

A “Residential Street” was added in the early 1960s.  So by this time the only backlot staple missing from Disney’s fiefdom was a small town business street.  Disney of course, had already built just such a town, not at his studio but at Disneyland.

Walt Disney apparently had been looking for and recreating this street, in different ways ever since his childhood in tiny Marceline, Missouri.   His somewhat wistful longing for the charm of small-town America was common to men of Disney’s age and era.  A look at the works of such diverse artists as Thornton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe, William Saroyan, Sterling North, Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Norman Rockwell,  Frank Capra, Booth Tarkington, Meredith Wilson, and Earl Hamner Jr. reveals this same longing for a world which each of them had, presumably chosen to leave behind and then regretted forever.

Disney finally did order a small town American street built in 1965, obstinately, for 1966’s Follow Me Boys.  The set would rise near the north east corner of the lot, to compliment his already standing residential street. Oddly though, “Business  Street” as the set was called, turned out to be a decent if not spectacular shooting space.  Designer John Mamsbridge found that by this time there was little he could add to the street Walt had been over-designing in his head and at Disneyland for a decade.  In 1965, there was little more to be done except copy the copies and uncork the nostalgia.  The somewhat pedestrian result would turn out be Walt’s last personal addition to his studio, He would die less than a year later.

The “Business Street” backlot would survive Disney by a decade-and-a-half before being rebuilt for Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1981 and demolished entirely in 1994. It was, at that time, the last existent sector of Disney’s original backlot. Stages 6 and 7 stand on the site today.

Walt’s original lot now has one tiny exterior set, a Midwest-themed boulevard built in 1997 over the outer wall of the Plumbing Department.  It consists of one half of one side of one city block.  Like its forbearer, it is christened “Business Street,” perhaps as much a hope for future production bookings as a homage.

Our tour of Hollywood’s lots and backlots then is over.  As has been observed in our travels, most of Hollywood’s backlots are now either gone or have been repurposed into parking lots or office space.   And with the advent of “virtual backlots” created inside a computer the future doesn’t look rosy.

So if you plan on visiting Hollywood and climbing that fence, you’d better do it soon.

****

Steven Bingen is a historian, author, and former archivist for Warner Bros., who has written or contributed to innumerable books, articles, and documentaries on Hollywood history. In 2011, Steve coauthored MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, the first significant book ever published about a movie studio lot. His latest book is Warner Bros: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot, an acre by acre and scandal by scandal examination of the legendary studio. He also authored the screenplay for 2012′s The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, which was the last theatrical feature film ever shot on black and white film stock. Appropriately enough, Steve lives in the world’s largest backlot, also known as Los Angeles.

Amazon link:

Brannigan featured

Blu-ray Review: “Brannigan” (1975)

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“Knock knock.”

Brannigan (1975) is a guilty pleasure. John Wayne, in one of his last films – he made only Rooster Cogburn (1975) and The Shootist (1976) after this – plays a fish-out-of-water Chicago cop in London, in a movie all too clearly inspired by the success of Dirty Harry (1971), a project originally offered to but rejected by Wayne. But Dirty Harry eventually grossed $36 million domestically ($18 million in rentals during its initial release) against a budget of just $4 million – and at a time when Wayne’s pictures were marginally successful at best.

Wayne responded with McQ (1974), a Dirty Harry clone much less enjoyable than the supremely ridiculous and touchingly elegiac though unrelated Brannigan. Most reviewers then and now unfavorably compare both films to Clint Eastwood’s now very dated Dirty Harry series (all but the first of the five films are virtually unwatchable today). The offbeat setting and obvious though entertaining cultural clashes are a plus, and Brannigan is more relaxed and less imitative of Dirty Harry, even though its premise resembles yet another Eastwood picture, Coogan’s Bluff (1969). Wayne, then 67 but looking much older with his deeply-etched features, big gut and bad toupee, is barely credible as an active police officer, but a few amusing lines of dialogue (“Get Brannigan! Use a forklift if you have to!”) amusingly address these issues while his relationship with co-star Judy Geeson is, thankfully, more paternal than romantic.

MGM holds the rights to this United Artists release. They in turn have licensed their video master to Twilight Time. There are some good extra features, but the transfer itself appears old and/or inadequate. It’s not terrible, but falls into that I-guess-it-looks-a-little-better-than-the-DVD category, as evidenced by the high-def trailer that’s also included. Using inferior source elements, it’s clearly sharper and brighter than the feature presentation.

The movie opens in Chicago (Det. Lt. Lon “McQ” McHugh was based in Seattle) where police Lt. Jim Brannigan (Wayne) bursts through a door, interrupting a small-time counterfeiter hard at work. “Knock knock,” Brannigan says, with exquisite John Wayne deadpannedness. He’s looking for notorious racketeer Ben Larkin (John Vernon, the Mayor of San Francisco in Dirty Harry) but Larkin, threatened with a grand jury indictment, has already done a runner to London, where Scotland Yard Commander Sir Charles Swann (Richard Attenborough) stands ready to arrest and extradite the underworld kingpin.

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Brannigan’s boss, Capt. Moretti (Ralph Meeker) puts Big Jim aboard the next flight to London, where DS (Detective Sergeant) Jennifer Thatcher (Judy Geeson), Brannigan’s driver and liaison officer, is there to meet him.  However, just as Brannigan arrives in London Town, cocky, confident Larkin is kidnapped by two hoods (one is James Booth from Zulu, the other is Straw Dogs‘ Del Henney) who make huge ransom demands from Larkin’s attorney (Mel Ferrer) – and who show they mean business by mailing one of Larkin’s severed fingers to Scotland Yard. Meanwhile, a hit man (Daniel Pilon) hired by Larkin back in Chicago makes several extravagant attempts on Brannigan’s life.

The cinematic Old West didn’t change much as Wayne himself aged. Conversely, it’s a little jarring to see him in then-present day London madly trying to jump the Tower Bridge’s drawbridge in a yellow Ford Capri. The film tries hard to be a fish-out-of-water Western in modern dress, even to the point of staging a completely superfluous comical barroom brawl (What exactly instigates it anyway?) that, minus the bowler hats and pints of Guinness, could be straight out of McLintock! (1963).

The movie works best watching the British characters react with dismay, disgust, or bemusement to Brannigan’s American swagger (he insists on carrying his flagrantly illegal handgun, all but telling an appalled Sir Charles to buzz off) and vice versa. In other hands Sir Charles might have been a painful stereotype, an English version of John Vernon’s Mayor character from Dirty Harry, but Attenborough nicely underplays his role, alternately amused if puzzled by the oversized American and only occasionally loses his cool, helpless against Brannigan’s inelegant meddling. Geeson, 41 years Wayne’s junior, is well cast: believably efficient and friendly but also clearly doing a job, she and Wayne have better rapport than many of Wayne’s late-career female co-stars.

Douglas Hickox directed. His short list of credits is nothing if not eclectic. His previous film was the horror-black comedy Theatre of Blood (1973), maybe Vincent Price’s best-ever film, and soon after Hickox would helm the vastly underrated prequel to Zulu, entitled Zulu Dawn (1979). Despite good reviews that film died at the box office. Hickox segued into television and died too young, in 1988.

The picture has a few good action set pieces, an excellent car chase undermined only by the sequence’s final stunt, clearly faked via some sort of optical or miniature effect. Though old and fat, Wayne in his old age still could throw a visually spectacular punch, and behind-the-scenes home movie footage shot by Geeson during the filming of the picture’s climax suggests Wayne may have thrown his considerable weight in other areas, influencing how at least his character should be photographed. (The home movies show something else likely never seen on any other Blu-ray extra: actor Mel Ferrer picking his nose.) The locations are used well. Scenes in Picadilly Circus show off marquees advertising The Sting and The Great Gatsby, while the nearby Picadilly Theatre promises A Streetcar Named Desire headlined by Claire Bloom and Martin Shaw.

Disc extras include an audio commentary by Judy Geeson, prompted by Nick Redman. The aforementioned home movies are limited to footage of filming the climactic scene, but they are interesting for showing Wayne’s particular way of filming such sequences.  There’s an isolated score track featuring Dominic Frontiere’s frequently derivative music (a scene with Ferrer eluding the police sounds all too much like a cue Jerry Goldsmith wrote for Planet of the Apes, for instance; other cues are reminiscent of Shaft).  Julie Kirgo offers some good liner notes, and there’s that better-looking-than-the-movie trailer.

Not a great film but far more entertaining than one might expect, Brannigan’s impact is undermined by a lackluster transfer but still a whole heck of a lot of fun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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DVD Review: “A Night in Casablanca” (1946)

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Let’s dispense with one myth right away:  the Marx Brothers did not make A Night in Casablanca to pay off Chico’s gambling debts. Though Chico always needed the money, Groucho and Harpo were itching for a big-screen comeback to erase the memory of their underwhelming MGM farewell film, The Big Store (1941).

Enter David L. Loew and the profit potential of independent production, which was appealing enough to end the brothers’ self-imposed cinematic retirement. The Marxes and Loew joined forces to create Loma Vista Productions, with United Artists handling the distribution chores on their low-budget venture.

Released in May 1946 to mixed reviews but solid box office, A Night in Casablanca would prove a fitting finale to the team’s movie career.  Perhaps their best effort since A Night at the Opera (1935), this postwar escapade features the trio in splendid form while recapturing some of the rough-edged spontaneity of their early Paramount comedies.

Before its DVD debut in 2004, A Night in Casablanca had an elusive history on the videocassette market — briefly issued by Independent United Distributors in 1983, followed by a GoodTimes budget release in 1990.  Castle Hill Productions (the copyright owner) finally rectified matters by teaming with Warner Home Video to give the film a long-overdue remastered version in excellent quality.

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However, there is a comic irony associated with Warner Home Video’s involvement.  In 1945, Warner Bros. expressed concern over the storyline of A Night in Casablanca, fearing that the Marxian farce would emulate the studio’s legendary 1942 drama. Groucho fired off a letter to Warner that has since become a classic. In 1997, Groucho’s letter was read during the Library of Congress’ bicentennial celebration:

“Apparently, there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making this picture, I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers.  . . . You claim that you own Casablanca and that no one else can use that name without your permission. What about Warner Brothers? Do you own that, too? You probably have the right to use the name Warner, but what about Brothers? Professionally, we were brothers long before you were.  . . . This all seems to add up to a pretty bitter tirade, but I assure you it’s not meant to.  I love Warners.  Some of my best friends are Warner Brothers.”

After Groucho explained the plot in a few bizarre follow-up letters, the Marxes heard no more from the Warner legal department. “It might have been better if we filmed the letters to Warner Brothers and left the picture we made in the can,” Groucho later remarked.

In truth, the Warner correspondence was a publicity stunt, which Groucho happily admitted in a private letter:  “I wish they would sue, but as it is, we’ve had reams in the paper.”  Nevertheless, the Marxes avoided a direct parody of the Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman classic — except for the “round up all likely suspects” line (spoken by none other than Casablanca cast member Dan Seymour) and Harpo’s lively turn at the roulette wheel.

Groucho offers Harpo some brotherly advice: “Remember what happened in 1929?”

Groucho offers Harpo some brotherly advice: “Remember what happened in 1929?”

What makes A Night in Casablanca a standout among the later Marx efforts is the re-emergence of Harpo’s anarchistic brilliance, which was toned down after Duck Soup (1933).  Thanks to uncredited contributions from Frank Tashlin, Harpo dominates the proceedings from the start with the famous sight gag involving a collapsed building. After playing second fiddle to Groucho and Chico in the MGM films, the horn-honking pantomimist enjoys a long-overdue free reign.  In fact, Groucho and Chico do not appear until 10 minutes into the picture.

Directed by Archie Mayo — a Warner craftsman best known for The Petrified Forest (1936) and Black Legion (1937) — A Night in Casablanca dispenses with the MGM musical gloss and syrupy romance in favor of a more free-wheeling approach.  Set largely within the confines of the Hotel Casablanca, Groucho plays the iconoclastic manager and Chico is appropriately cast as a taxi-camel driver. Harpo initially appears as a disobedient valet to Heinrich Stubel (wonderfully played by character actor Sig Ruman — returning as a Marx foil for the first time since 1937′s A Day at the Races), an escaped Nazi who has stashed a valuable treasure in the hotel.

Amid this B-grade plot are several wild scenes and some memorable Groucho dialogue (“Never mind the staff. Assemble the guests. I’ll tell them what I expect of them”).  Placing the Marxes in a postwar setting may seem unusual, yet their shenanigans inside the Hotel Casablanca are a refreshing throwback to their first film, The Cocoanuts (1929).  In many ways, Groucho, Harpo and Chico have come full circle.

The frenetic (if somewhat belabored) climax finds the brothers on board a Nazi plane, with Harpo knocking out the pilot and taking over the controls with devilish glee. However, art historian and critic Erwin Panofsky found a deeper meaning to this sequence when A Night in Casablanca was first released:  “The disproportion between the smallness of [Harpo’s] effort and the magnitude of disaster is a magnificent and terrifying symbol of man’s behavior in the atomic age.” No doubt Chico would have responded to this social commentary by playing the “Beer Barrel Polka.”

Sig Ruman and Harpo Marx.

Sig Ruman and Harpo Marx.

Loew had little doubt that A Night in Casablanca would make money, but no one expected the picture to become one of 1946’s surprise hits.  Moviegoers and devoted fans welcomed back the Marxes with $2.7 million in worldwide ticket sales — resulting in the highest grosser of their career.

Despite renewed box-office success, the trio retired once again from the silver screen. “We decided we were coming down the stretch and that it was high time we quit while we were still partially alive,” Groucho wrote in his 1959 autobiography.  (For all intents and purposes, 1949’s Love Happy was a Harpo Marx vehicle, with Chico in support and Groucho as narrator and guest star. The three never share a single scene together.)

Though not without its faults, A Night in Casablanca is a better film than its critical reputation would suggest. And how do the Marx Brothers bid farewell as a full-fledged team?  They chase beautiful Lisette Verea through the streets of Casablanca — an appropriate finale for these anti-establishment pioneers.

Equus Featured

Blu-ray Review: “Equus” (1977)

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Equus (1977) is the Sidney Lumet-directed film version of Peter Shaffer’s controversial 1973 play. Both the play and the film (which Shaffer adapted) grapple with weighty issues including primarily acute mental illness, and the spiritual advantages/disadvantages of religious passion and psychological therapy. The story focuses on the relationship between a psychiatrist, played in the film by Richard Burton, and his patient, Peter Firth. The case, suggested to Shaffer by a real-life incident, is about a 17-year-old boy who with a hoof pick viciously blinds six prized horses at the stable in which he’s employed. In both the play and the film there are undercurrents of bestiality and arguably themes of repressed homosexuality as well, though it’s also less about the boy than the psychiatrist’s reaction to his mental state. As in most London and New York productions of the play, in the film there is much full-frontal male nudity and, in the film more than the play, squirmily uncomfortable footage of Firth’s character physically as well as spiritually bonding with real horses. The subject matter made for one of The Onion’s better jokes.

In the play, instead of using real horses onstage, actors generally in black tights or body suits wear elaborate but singularly unreal horses’ heads. For the movie, Shaffer and presumably Lumet decided to use real, live horses instead, though the movie retains many other theatrical devices: at one point Firth plays himself at age six in a flashback scene, there are long monologues spoken directly into the camera by Burton, and deliberately theatrical, not realistic, lighting is utilized in several key scenes. Nonetheless, the decision to literalize the horses angered some purists, and partly for this reason reviews were mixed-to-negative. The subject matter turned audiences away and it was not a great commercial success.

This is unfortunate, for while Equus is a difficult film on many levels, it’s also adult and intelligent if at times a bit pretentious and self-conscious, though overall superbly acted by a peerless cast. Lumet’s direction is among his most accomplished. In addition to his usual uncluttered approach, often as simple as pointing his camera at the characters the audience will want most to watch at any given moment, his handling of all the scenes involving the horses is among his most subtly cinematic.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, licensed from MGM, offers a flawless transfer of the film, beautifully shot in spherical 1.85:1 Panavision by Oswald Morris. Further, the label’s usual extras are supplemented with a superb two-hour-plus documentary on Burton, In From the Cold? (1988), making this effectively an intriguing double-feature.*

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The movie, like the play, is set in England but filmed, apparently for tax reasons, in and around Toronto, Ontario. Court magistrate Hesther Salomon (Eileen Atkins) presses esteemed but overworked psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Burton) to take on the case of Alan Strang (Firth), a 17-year-old boy who blinded horses at the stable where he worked.

Alan proves hard to treat. He’s either catatonic or, when questioned, replies with television commercial jingles. Looking for answers Dysart visits Alan’s parents, housewife Dora (Joan Plowright), a devout Christian, and her printer husband, Frank (Colin Blakely), an atheist. Through this contradictory child-rearing Alan develops a strange spiritual interest in horses. After destroying a reproduction of a painting of the Crucifixion, his father gives him a painting of a horse, which glowers down at Alan in his bed. Dysart later visits the stables where its wealthy owner, Harry Dalton (Harry Andrews), express disgusted shock over what has happened. Until Alan went mad, he gave every indication of being a hard-working polite young man. Dysart also learns that a young woman Alan knew there, rider Jill Mason (Jenny Agutter), suffered her own breakdown and became reclusive after the incident.

Dysart gradually penetrates Alan’s psyche. Alan’s attraction to horses takes on a religious, as well as sexual significance. He sees the horses, which he calls by the name “Equus,” their Latin origin, and the bits they wear as enslaved and tortured like Christ, and that in becoming a stable boy, Alan has been granted entrance into their holy temple. Alan’s confessions become increasingly dark, as he attempts to become one with the horses by sneaking them off into the night, nakedly riding and caressing them.

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Ultimately though, Equus is less about Alan than it is about Dysart, an unhappily married man with existential concerns about the treatment he provides. However cross-eyed Alan’s religious epiphanies, Dysart argues, through his passion (in the religious sense) he’s experienced something Dysart has not. To “cure” Alan is to make him “normal,” but at what cost? The film reminded me of friends I’ve known with bipolar disorder. Medication might provide some stable, manageable middle ground between the manic highs and cripplingly suicidal lows but, once experienced, those unimaginable maniacal highs are pretty hard to give up, which is partly why so many manic-depressives go off their medication.

The original London production starred Firth, with Alec McCowen as Dysart. Firth reprised the role on Broadway and in Los Angeles productions featuring, in turn, Anthony Hopkins, Burton, Leonard Nimoy, and Anthony Perkins as Dysart, with Tom Hulce eventually replacing Firth.

Firth is fine but Burton is almost revelatory, giving one of the best performances of his career. He could be overly theatrical or walk through certain movie parts, but apparently he recognized this as a major opportunity and, with Lumet’s directions, gives a remarkably restrained performance. The entire supporting cast operates at the same high standard.

The video transfer of Equus is basically flawless. It’s a clean source with great detail and nearly perfect color, while the DTS-HD Master Audio, a 2.0 mono mix, sounds good also, and includes optional English subtitles. The region-free disc is a 3,000-copy limited edition.

In addition to Twilight Time’s usual extras – audio commentary by Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo with liner notes by the latter, an isolated score track, and trailer, the disc includes a marvelous two-hour-plus documentary of Burton made shortly after his death (but with a mysterious 2010 copyright notice), In From the Cold?, featuring interviews with his vast Welsh family and hometown friends, tracing his life from beginning to end and buttressed with generous film clips (reflecting more on Burton’s stormy life than chronologically unspooled) and archival interviews with Burton (and wife Elizabeth Taylor). Fascinating stuff: Burton obviously drunk and self-loathing in several of the interviews, Lauren Bacall’s scathing criticism of Dick and Liz’s opulent lifestyle, and John Gielgud reflecting on a bemusing encounter with Ringo Starr (“He had no idea who I was, and a daresay he didn’t know who I was, either!”) aboard the famous couple’s yacht. It’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

Equus is a challenging work, not entirely successful and in many respects unpleasant, but it ambitiously tries to make sense of what may ultimately be unknowable. As Dysart himself, paraphrasing Alan, says, “At least I have galloped. Have you?”

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* Another double-bill an imaginative film programmer might try would be to pair Equus with John Huston’s similar Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).

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DVD Review: “The Strange Woman” (1946)

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One of the main reasons that truly dedicated cinema aficionados have particular respect and admiration for ‘B’ filmmakers is that not only could they achieve a level of visual style on low budgets that put the work of more respectable (and overrated) directors working with infinitely larger budgets to shame, but also do so with greater speed and efficiency. (This explains why many ‘B’ directors like John Brahm, Robert Florey, Ida Lupino, William Witney, Norman Foster, and William “One-Shot” Beaudine thrived in the television medium; the budgets and schedules required for TV were downright luxurious compared with the conditions they’d made theatrical films under.) One director who epitomized this concept of doing more with less was Edgar G. Ulmer. As part of their series of remastered DVD releases of public domain movies previously available only in cheap, multi-generational knock-offs, Film Chest has just issued a high-definition restored version of Ulmer’s 1946 costume melodrama The Strange Woman.

Coincidentally, as with Hollow Triumph, another 40s ‘B’ film recently remastered and released on DVD by Film Chest, The Strange Woman was a project that was initiated by its star, in this case, Hedy Lamarr. (For years, Lamarr was written off as yet another attractive starlet with a limited acting range, but it’s now well known that she had a genius I.Q. and, with composer George Antheil, invented a frequency-hopping spread-spectrum device that was patented in their names in 1942. The device not only prevented the jamming of radio-controlled torpedoes, but laid the groundwork for today’s Internet as well.)

Lamarr was dissatisfied with her time under contract to MGM, where she was wasted in glamorous but unsubstantial roles. It also didn’t help that MGM refused to loan Lamarr to Warner Bros. when she was the first choice for what would’ve been the most notable role of her career, Ilsa Lund in Casablanca. (Lamarr’s loss, however, was film history’s gain when David O. Selznick gladly loaned out Warners’ second choice, Ingrid Bergman, since Bergman was, frankly, a far more talented and nuanced actress. MGM did loan Lamarr to Warners two years later for The Conspirators, however.)

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After leaving MGM in 1945, Lamarr tried freelancing, an option becoming increasingly popular at the time among film stars whose studio contracts had run out and wanted to exercise more control over their careers. Lamarr purchased the film rights to Ben Ames Williams’ novel The Strange Woman, a steamy tale in which Jenny Hager, a young temptress from the wrong side of town (said town being Bangor, Maine, circa the early 1800s), sleeps her way to riches and respectability. Lamarr then teamed with fellow MGM alumni Jack Chertock and Hunt Stromberg to produce. She also selected Ulmer, a childhood friend in her native Vienna, to direct.

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Ulmer directing Lamarr and Sanders

Being an independent production, The Strange Woman was made on a limited budget, but it must have seemed have seemed lavish compared to the miniscule budgets Ulmer was used to working with when he was under contract to Producers Releasing Company (or PRC, as it was commonly known), the cheapest of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios. The Strange Woman is what was known as a “bodice ripper” (i.e., “lusty” costume romantic-melodramas populated by male scoundrels and promiscuous female protagonists), a subgenre that proved to be especially popular with movie audiences in the post-war years in such films as Gainsborough Pictures’ The Wicked Lady (UK, 1945), 20th Century Fox’s Forever Amber (1947), and MGM’s That Forsythe Woman (1949). Although The Strange Woman’s budget was a fraction of the ones these movies were made on, Ulmer’s visual creativity belied its modest resources.

Still, the movie’s sense of visual style was not enough for it to transcend its soap opera story and script. (The screenplay is credited to radio writer Herb Meadow, but supposedly Ulmer and Stromberg also did uncredited work on it.) I’d say that The Strange Woman’s story is like a bad Harlequin romance, except that “bad Harlequin romance” is a redundancy. With exceptional directing, writing, and acting, it’s possible to make a quality film out of this type of material as proven by William Wyler’s Jezebel (1938) with its Academy Award-winning star performance by Bette Davis. But, at any rate, Lamarr was no Davis, not by a long shot, and even admitted in her autobiography that she didn’t have the range to pull the role off: “I just wasn’t a tigress. All the talent at my disposal couldn’t make me one.”

A cliché that was overused in that period was showing the main characters as children and how their psychological makeup was already apparent in their personalities. In the opening scene of The Strange Woman (supposedly directed by an uncredited Douglas Sirk), we are introduced to the main characters as adolescents as they play by a river stream. Even at an early age, young Jenny (played by Jo Ann Marlowe), daughter of town drunk Tim Hager (Dennis Hoey), is obviously a bad seed, as evidenced by her bouncing a rock off the head of one boy in a swimming race with another boy (she was rooting for the other boy) and then taunting Ephraim (Christopher Severn), the son of wealthy merchant Isaiah Poster (Gene Lockhart), who owns the local general store in addition to a lumber camp outside the town. Just to show what a hellcat Jenny is, when Ephraim reveals that he can’t swim, she promptly pushes him into the water. And just to add insult to injury, after another lad pulls Ephraim out of the stream before he drowns, Jenny takes credit for the rescue.

Fast-forward to about a decade later. Jenny (Lamarr) has grown to be an attractive young woman who’s got definite ideas of what she wants and how to get it. While Jenny shows off her new dress to gal pal Lena Tempest (June Storey), a barmaid at the local dive down by the docks, her friend offers her some encouragement.

Lena: “Listen, honey, with your looks, you don’t have to worry. Why, you can get the youngest and best-looking man on the river.”
Jenny: “I don’t want the youngest; I want the richest!”
Lena: “Jenny, that’s a recipe for trouble!”
Jenny: (coquettishly) “Don’t worry about me. I can handle trouble.”
Lena: “I know you can.”

The richest man in the area being the aforementioned Isaiah Poster (conveniently, a widower), Jenny’s already got him in her sights. She gets her chance to reel him in when her father drops dead of a fatal heart attack due to his exertions while taking a whip to her for her wantonness. (Sounds kinky, huh? Well, we’ll get to that later.) Jenny shows up on Isaiah’s doorstep, acting as distraught as her thespian talents will allow. Sure enough, Isaiah offers Jenny protection and a roof over her head in the form of a marriage proposal, which she “gratefully” accepts.

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The next step to achieving her goals is provided by Isaiah’s son Ephraim, due back from boarding school. The adult Ephraim is played by Louis Hayward with the usual combination of callowness and moral ambiguity he usually brought to his roles whether he was playing a hero or a heavy. Ephraim turns out to be a spineless weakling, which makes him ideal for the manipulations Jenny has in mind. (Indeed, Ephraim’s such an obvious patsy that he calls to mind the great line that Preston Sturges gave Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve when she’s sizing up Henry Fonda as her mark: “I need him like the ax needs the turkey.”)

Jenny puts the moves on Ephraim and, as they go into a clinch, Isaiah shows up right on cue to witness them in the act and suffers a stroke there on the spot. (Jenny would seem to be the Typhoid Mary of heart disease.) Unexpectedly, and much to Jenny’s disappointment, Isaiah recovers. Time for Plan B. Borrowing a page from the film noir femme fatales’ book, Jenny convinces Ephraim to bump his old man off.

The opportunity presents itself when there’s trouble at the lumber camp and both Posters will be required to make the journey to the camp via canoe in the rapid waters of the river. (Guess who else can’t swim?) As it turns out, before he can commit cold-blooded fratricide, Ephraim has a panic attack as they travel downstream, resulting in the canoe capsizing. It may be an accident, but it achieves the effect desired by Jenny: Isaiah’s demise. Now that Ephraim’s fulfilled his usefulness, Jenny takes chutzpah to a whole new level, denouncing him for killing her husband and barring him from the family home. She needs to get Ephraim out of the picture because she’s already got her next boytoy lined up: John Evered (George Sanders), the fiancé of her childhood friend Meg Saladine (Hillary Brooke).
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On the plus side, in addition to Sanders, Hoey, Lockhart, and Hayward, The Strange Woman’s supporting cast also includes such first-rate character actors as Alan Napier, Rhys Williams, and Moroni Olsen. On the debit side of the ledger is the fact that the weak material the cast has to work with doesn’t make much use of their talents. Sanders is particularly wasted in a standard leading man role, rather than playing one of his patented cads who might’ve given Jenny a suitable antagonist to provide her with a well-deserved comeuppance, much like his Addison DeWitt did so satisfyingly with Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington in All About Eve.

There are some fleeting moments when The Strange Woman threatens to become a perverse kitsch classic, such as Jenny’s wicked smile as her father starts whipping her or her seduction of John Evered during a raging thunderstorm where, at the height of their passion, a bolt of lightning causes a tree to burst into flames. But such moments are few and far between, buried under tons of tedious dialogue as the characters talk endlessly about their desires and aspirations. The one interesting aspect of the story is how Jenny uses her newfound wealth to help those townspeople in need, but even this isn’t enough to make up for the screenplay’s defects.

As with Film Chest’s other recent remastered DVD releases, despite some obvious scratching in the first reel, The Strange Woman is consistently good to look at. Whether the film itself is actually worth watching is another matter altogether.

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Book Review: “The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy – A Study of the Chaotic Making and Marketing of Atoll K”

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Niche publishers McFarland & Company are well known for their essential and often outré cinema books. A friend and I used to come up with imaginary titles reflecting McFarland’s quirky catalog: The Moon Voyage Films of Ray Harryhausen, The 2,341 Malaysian Films Beginning with the Letter “F”, Smelly Movies: The Creation, Production, and Distribution of Mike Todd Jr. Smell-o-Vision (Wait a minute – that’s a book I’d like to read!).

The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy – A Study of the Chaotic Making and Marketing of Atoll K is one such actual McFarland title. The great comedy team of Stan Laurel (1890-1965) and Oliver Hardy (1892-1957) are positively beloved around the world for the silent and sound comedies they made for producer Hal Roach, but an entire book devoted to their disastrous last feature, a movie even Laurel himself regarded as “an abortion,” one so notoriously bad even many die-hard Laurel & Hardy fans outright refuse to watch it?

But, in fact, The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy is a fascinating read. Though Atoll K is, undeniably, severely flawed for myriad reasons, not the least of which is Laurel’s shocking physical state – he became gravely ill partway into the production, and in much of the picture looks positively cadaverous – author Norbert Aping rightly reappraises the film as not the complete catastrophe most have long assumed, that against all odds the picture has scattered moments of pure Laurel & Hardy comedy in line with their ‘20s and ‘30s films for Roach. More importantly, Aping collates his exhaustive original research into an almost day-by-day account of the film from the development of its multiple screenplays, its problem-plagued production, and labyrinthine release versions.

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The first generation of Laurel & Hardy scholars, notably the late John McCabe, outright dismissed all of the team’s films after 1940, when they left Hal Roach Studios for what they thought would be greener pastures at 20th Century-Fox. However, once ensconced Laurel particularly was horrified to discover that the creative freedom he’d enjoyed at Roach was practically nonexistent at Fox as well as MGM, where they were loaned out for two additional films. The eight features they made during this period, as well as the subsequent Atoll K, were simply dismissed as total rubbish and barely mentioned in any of the early Laurel & Hardy books about their careers.

But DVD releases of the Fox (and, later, MGM) movies beginning in 2006 necessitated at least a perfunctory reexamination and, lo and behold, some of these long-reviled movies weren’t nearly as bad as their reputation suggested. Their first two for Fox, Great Guns (1941) and A-Haunting We Will Go (1942) are pretty terrible, and their two for MGM, Air Raid Wardens (1943) and Nothing But Trouble (1944) arguably are even worse, but in fact their Fox movies gradually improved. Jitterbugs, The Dancing Masters (both 1943), The Big Noise (1944), and The Bullfighters (1945) aren’t exactly masterpieces of screen comedy, but the best of these films are really no worse than the team’s weaker Roach features. Where movies like Bonnie Scotland (1935) and Swiss Miss (1938)  get bogged down with romantic subplots, musical numbers, and Roach’s A-feature ambitions, these later Fox films wisely focus on the team’s unadorned antics.

Nevertheless, the team left Fox after 1945, wrongly assuming their modest but profitable movies assured them employment elsewhere. But the industry was changing rapidly in those early postwar years and Laurel & Hardy, considered “old-fashioned” clowns even during the 1930s, were all but washed up as far as Hollywood was concerned.

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But a comedy-starved Europe had not forgotten them. After the war their older movies were reissued and even their newer films were warmly welcomed. They embarked on a fabulously successful series of British music hall tours where they were mobbed everywhere they went.

Given their huge popularity in Europe, a French-Italian co-production starring Laurel & Hardy must have seemed like a sure thing. Indeed, though Aping’s book doesn’t speculate much on this, had Atoll K been a pleasant and rewarding experience for the team, it’s not unreasonable to suggest Laurel & Hardy might have enjoyed a brief but fruitful second career making one or two features per year there until Hardy’s untimely death.

Unfortunately, and despite a huge budget about equal to the negative cost of all of the team’s Roach features combined, Atoll K was positively cursed from the get-go. As Aping documents with extraordinary detail, the film was plagued with myriad screenwriters working in three languages (English for Laurel & Hardy’s scenes, French and Italian for everything else), each with his own comedy agenda and interests (including political satire), none particularly suited to the team’s style of screen comedy. They were also saddled with a director, Léo Joannon, completely out of synch with their brand of humor, and who infamously strutted about in pith helmet and puttees, armed with megaphones of various sizes and functions.

Meanwhile, the team’s physical health evolved into a major crisis. Hardy was never fatter, though this impacted his comic timing not in the least, and he’s actually less uncomfortably obese than he appeared in his cameo role in Frank Capra’s Riding High (1950), in which he sweats with alarming profusity. Rather, during the course of Atoll K’s absurdly long production, Stan Laurel undergoes a complete transformation brought on by illness. In most of the location footage, shot first, he appears older but reasonably fit, but in all the studio scenes he looks like a man recently liberated from a concentration camp, the 5’8” actor’s weight dropping down to 115 lbs. at one point. He’s so disturbingly thin and weak, even in some of the team’s best scenes Laurel’s appalling physical state becomes an insurmountable, painful distraction.

Aping’s book is movie archeology at its best. With most of the cast and crew dead or not interviewable, he had to rely on surviving archival documents that are surprisingly plentiful. For instance, he details each version of the treatment and screenplay, weighing their pros and cons, and later clearly examines each of the film’s various final edits, including differing French, Italian, German, and two very different English-language cuts of the film.

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In the larger sense, The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy offers detailed accounts of the team’s movements during pre-production and filming, particularly during its many long delays, as they bide their time in Paris and, later, travel to Italy to help promote the film. Other books have satiated those interested in Laurel & Hardy’s music hall career in Britain, and their last days appearing on the American television show This Is Your Life and preparing for a sadly unmade television series. But Aping’s book reveals a significant part of their later lives never before so thoroughly documented.

As someone who always liked and/or was fascinated with at least big swaths of Atoll K, by the end Aping’s book had me genuinely longing for a complete restoration of the best complete version of this now-public domain movie (the most widely available in America, called Utopa, is cut and compromised in several important ways), one that would allow viewers to see Atoll K in the best possible light. Until then, Norbert Aping’s The Final Film of Laurel and Hardy offers a tantalizing examination of this long-reviled but fascinating film.

Khartoum Featured

Blu-ray Review: “Khartoum” (1966)

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Though Criterion’s reconstructed It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) understandably got all the attention, January 22nd actually saw the release to Blu-ray of two filmed-in-Ultra Panavision, presented-in-Cinerama roadshows. The other was Khartoum (1966), a much less successful but still interesting historical epic dramatizing Britain’s equivalent to America’s Alamo. Had the film been released in 1956 instead of 1966 it would likely be remembered as an intelligent, intimate epic when compared to the more common, mindless CinemaScope spectacles that dominated the 1950s. But, ten years later, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) casts a long shadow. Khartoum can’t help but invite comparison, and in every way is inferior. A mostly British production but produced, written by, and starring Americans, Khartoum today is remembered as one of the first of a long line of failed Cinerama roadshows (it earned $3 million in U.S. and Canadian rentals versus its $6 million cost), the beginning of the end for that company and that type of roadshow exhibition, as well as for historical epics generally. But Khartoum does have its good points: the basic conflict is vast and intensely personal at once; the second unit work by Yakima Canutt is often spectacular; in retrospect the events in 1880s Sudan anticipate the rise of Islamic fundamentalism a century later; and some of the performances are interesting, though star Charlton Heston’s portrayal of Gen. Charles “Chinese” Gordon is maybe his least interesting within the genre. Twilight Time has licensed what originally was a United Artists release from MGM. The high-def results aren’t as splendiferous as the extremely pristine and aurally spectacular It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World but still good, plus there’s a smattering of interesting special features.

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More than 10,000 British-led Egyptian troops are slaughtered by an army of Muslin fanatics, an army led by Sudanese Arab Muhammad Ahmad (Laurence Olivier), self-described Mahdi (“messianic redeemer”) who believes Mohammed has chosen him to lead a crusade to spread radical Islam across the region. To set a very public example, he intends to murder the entire population of Khartoum, moderate Sudanese and Egyptian Muslims not allied with Ahmad and non-Muslims alike. Word of the massacre reaches pragmatic British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (Ralph Richardson). He’s loathe to send British troops to Khartoum in order to save the thousands of Egyptians and Europeans stranded there, this in spite of Britain’s close ties to Egypt (and its Suez Canal). Instead, he decides to unofficially dispatch celebrated war hero Gen Charles Gordon (Heston) to the region, believing that if loose cannon Gordon’s mission to evacuate Khartoum with Egyptian troops fails, the British government will be absolved any liability or political fallout. Accompanying Gordon on this suicide mission is Col. J.D.H. Stewart (Richard Johnson), whose responsibility it is to try and keep Gordon in line. Formerly Governor-General of the Sudan who broke the slave trade there some years before, Gordon is hailed as a god-like savior upon his return but the situation is dire, with the Mahdi having cut Khartoum off from the rest of the world. A large British force is the only thing that can save Khartoum now, and that’s not likely to happen. Khartoum’s main point of interest is in the way playwright-anthropologist Robert Ardrey’s screenplay essentially makes Gordon and the Mahdi two sides of the same coin: True Believers (the real Gordon a devout Christian cosmologist) who’d gladly surrender their lives for the Greater Good. The only difference seems to be that Gordon barely recognizes the dangers of such unquestioning devotion. The movie’s best scenes are two brief meetings between Gordon and the Mahdi, meetings that didn’t actually happen though dramatically justified here. Part of the problem with Khartoum is that Gordon pretty much remains an enigma, nor is this characterization helped by Heston’s atypically reserved but still indulgent performance. The script, at least as far as one can make out in the final cut of the film, hints at Gordon’s evangelism but not enough to present any real clear picture of the man. The screenplay also suggests Gordon as egotistical, cocksure, but charismatic, qualities similar to T.E. Lawrence. Some of these Heston gets across, but like the mid-Atlantic accent he affects, mostly Heston hedges his bets, more often than not playing Gordon as a stiff upper lipped, A.E.W. Mason-inspired British Empire stereotype. Further, much of Ardrey’s script posits Gordon as the great white savior lording over adoring dark-skinned followers in “his” Sudan, especially in all the scenes involving Khaleel (Johnny Sekka), Gordon’s devoted valet, he forever bemused by Gordon’s faith and this strange Jesus fellow reads about in Gordon’s Bible. (What the film does not mention is that Gordon reinstated the slave trade to Khartoum upon his return. I doubt that went down well.) Laurence Olivier’s Muhammad Ahmad is another matter. Something like an extension of his controversial blackface performance as Othello, Olivier hides behind dark brown make-up, a thick beard, and flowing robes, affecting an inconsistent accent that, in his first scene addressing victorious troops, has the unintended comical effect of reminding viewers of Leo McKern’s Swami Clang in The Beatles’ movie Help! (1965). (I suspect that may have been the first scene Olivier shot; he dials back the accent considerably for the rest of the picture.) However, after 9/11 Olivier’s performance can’t help but remind contemporary viewers of Osama bin Laden, whose ambitions, fanatical beliefs, and terrorist strategies were starkly similar. In full make-up, Olivier even looks a little like bin Laden. Moreover, the British government’s interests in the region likewise draw eerily similar comparisons to America’s more than a century later. Another problem with Oliver’s scenes is that all too clearly the actor never set foot outside a British soundstage. In all of the location scenes Olivier is clearly doubled, the effect similar to Fun in Acapulco, G.I. Blues and other Elvis vehicles where the actor is painfully absent in all the location scenes because “Col.” Tom Parker refused to let his precious commodity travel abroad. In Khartoum, the flawless performances of the always-good Richard Johnson and Ralph Richardson outshine the two leads. Heston reportedly was happy with Basil Dearden’s direction, and indeed his unimaginative camera set-ups don’t help. The film has extraordinarily few close-ups, and the use of Ultra Panavision’s extremely wide canvas is bereft of visual flair. Yakima Canutt’s second unit work is far more interesting. The climatic moment of the picture, based on George W. Joy’s famous painting General Gordon’s Last Stand, is particularly disappointing and ineffectively edited.

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Twilight Time’s 1080p Blu-ray of Khartoum sources superior 65mm film elements, made clear by the “in Cinerama” title card which would have been removed for 35mm engagements. Also intact are the film’s original overture, intermission break, entr’acte, and exit music. At 136 minutes, this also seems to be the longest original cut of the film, which is missing several minutes in the original U.S. release, making it one of the shortest narrative roadshow releases. The image is strong throughout, with good detail and accurate, vivid color. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio lacks the directionality of the original 6-track magnetic stereo mix; it’s not clear why MGM couldn’t use those sound elements as they apparently still exist. Optional English subtitles are included. The disc includes an original Cinerama release version trailer, also in high-def; an isolated music track (DTS-HD mono, alas); an audio commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman; and Kirgo’s typically observant liner notes (she aptly describes Olivier as looking “like a bearded walnut,” and rightly likens Khartoum’s portrait of Gordon to the later Patton). Khartoum, then, is a deeply-flawed epic but also an ambitious, mostly intelligent one that, on Blu-ray, can at long last be assessed more fairly than decades of panned-and-scanned viewings on 13-inch TV sets allowed. That it aims so high and falls well short of its goal doesn’t negate its many fine qualities, and Khartoum deserves the wider audience this handsome Blu-ray release allows.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Khartoum rates:

Movie: Good

Video: Excellent

Sound: Good

Supplements: Audio commentary, Cinerama release trailer, isolated score track, booklet.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES

Twilight Time 1966 / Color / 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision 70 / 136 min. / Street Date January 22, 2014 / $29.95 Starring Charlton Heston, Laurence Olivier, Richard Johnson, Ralph Richardson.. Director of Photography Edward Scaife Music Frank Cordell Written by Robert Ardrey Produced by Julian Blaustein Directed by Basil Dearden

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Special Report: Criterion’s Reconstruction of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”

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One of the most eagerly-awaited titles of this or any other year, Criterion’s new Blu-ray of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World offers a long-desired reconstruction of the film’s original roadshow version, a cut of the film not seen by anyone a few months after the movie’s November 7, 1963 premiere.

An epic, all-star comedy directed by Stanley Kramer, it’s as divisive as Hillary Clinton: people tend to either love or hate it. Indeed, some of the more extreme haters harbor an inexplicable resentment toward those who don’t share their opinion. I’m squarely in the other camp. I’ve adored and have been endlessly mesmerized by Kramer’s film since childhood. For me it never gets old, but I can also understand why it might not click with everyone who sees it. It helps to be familiar with the dizzying array of stars, supporting actor-comedians, and even bit players who populate it. It also plays better viewed cold, without any awareness of what’s to come, with no promises or expectations of a “comedy to end all comedies.”

It is, unquestionably, misunderstood by many. Though dominated by broad, large-scale slapstick, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World works as much for other reasons. The movie has an unusual structure, introducing a group of characters which it then breaks up into, eventually, six major groupings, cleverly intercutting their various adventures before they all meet up again at the climax, with additional characters picked up and encountered along the way. This cutting among the various sub-plots as they converge on a potential $350,000 jackpot several hundred miles away is a big part of the film’s charm. Structurally, a comparison to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) is not inapt. That silent epic doesn’t make much of an impact when its multiple stories are viewed separately (as they frequently were), but intercut as Griffith intended that picture, like IAMMMMW, it becomes an entirely different viewing experience.

Some reviewers have also mistaken the film as some sort of tribute to silent comedy. Certainly its Harold Lloyd-like climax has elements of that, but overall the film is its own animal. It’s not an attempt at an old-fashioned tribute the way The Great Race (1965) later was. Despite Kramer’s reputation for socially conscious drama and despite IAMMMMW’s greed-driven plot there’s no  attempt at any social significance or a “message” of any kind. Despite the presence of comedians and comic actors drawn from silent films, Vaudeville, burlesque, nightclubs, radio, television, and other venues, William and Tania Rose’s screenplay brings these widely-varied performing styles into a solidly-plotted cohesive whole, though it does draw inspiration from various sources and gives each performer breathing room to ply their craft. (For me, parts of the film play like a more cynical Preston Sturges script, particularly in scenes featuring actor William Demarest, in all but name reprising his Officer Kockenlocker character from The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.)

Mainly, this review will explore the 197-minute reconstruction – not “restoration” – of the original 202-minute roadshow version, what was put back and in what form, and how these added elements play against the more familiar and subsequent 163-minute roadshow/general release version.

If you’re reading this review you already probably know It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World backwards. If somehow you’ve made your way through life without ever seeing it, like audio co-commentator Mark Evanier I recommend that you first watch the shorter version of the film, then the longer cut some time later, and then come back to read this review.

To summarize: Trying to elude detectives hot on his trail, career crook “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) spectacularly crashes his car in the Mohave Desert many miles north of Los Angeles. Before expiring he tells the five motorists who’ve stopped to help – dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar); Vegas-bound pals “Ding” Bell (Buddy Hackett) and Benjy Benjamin (Mickey Rooney); milquetoast seaweed entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle); and simple-minded furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters) about $350,000 buried several hundred miles away at Santa Rosita Beach State Park, under what he describes as “ a big ‘W.’” (In a nice touch, Durante repeats this important clue for the audience’s benefit, looking straight into the camera, ensuring that they will be on the lookout, too.)

Joined by Russell’s straight-laced wife, Emmeline (Dorothy Provine), and domineering mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), and Melville’s wife, Monica (Edie Adams), the group quickly abandons any thought of calmly driving down to Santa Rosita together as a group and dividing the stolen money equally. As Benjy says, “it’s every man, including the old bag (Merman), for himself.”

Meanwhile, Chief of Detectives Capt. T.G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy, top-billed) of the Santa Rosita Police Department closely monitors their actions. An honest cop four months away from retirement, Culpepper is equally anxious to close this 15-year-old case, believing that he can finagle its successful resolution into an upgraded pension so that he can “retire with honor.”

As the treasure hunters leave an awesome trail of destruction in their wake – “withholding information, causing accidents, failing to report accidents, reckless driving, theft, at least three cases of assault and battery…” – they pick up other strangers along the way, notably British army Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas), unscrupulous con-man Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers), and Russell’s spaced-out brother-in-law, Sylvester Marcus (Dick Shawn)

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70, an anamorphic 65mm process, and originally exhibited as a road show, meaning that instead of saturation bookings on hundreds or thousands of movie screens simultaneously, the film rolled out across the country (and around the world) slowly, methodically. It typically opened in just one big downtown movie palace in each of the country’s biggest cities, playing on a reserved-seats basis for an average run of one year, then after that went into general release and neighborhood theaters and, eventually, drive-ins.

Mad 1

The movie premiered at the Cinerama Dome Theater in Hollywood on November 3, 1963, and by mid-December had also opened in New York, Chicago, Boston, London, and Atlanta but few, if any, other theaters, partly because most Cinerama houses were still playing How the West Was Won to packed houses, and partly because theaters had to then be converted from the original three-strip Cinerama process to the more standard 70mm equipment needed to run IAMMMMW. By mid-December 1963 distributor United Artists, working with Kramer, decided to cut about 43 minutes of movie out of the long film which, taking into consideration its overture, intermission break, entr’acte, and exit music clocked in at nearly three-and-a-half hours.

And so it was the shorter, 163-minute version that played everywhere else, as a roadshow throughout 1964, in general release, during its 1970 rerelease, on network television, in syndication, and on home video. In 1991 MGM cobbled together its own 175-minute reconstruction, but that release was far from perfect: some of the footage was incorrectly integrated, and least one shot included in that release was apparently never part of any official version.

Criterion’s reconstructed Blu-ray version, supervised by Robert A. Harris, consists mostly of MGM’s HD transfer of the short version integrated with the same deleted footage included on the 1991 home video version, footage derived from 70mm theatrical print trims of the long version. For the 1991 laserdisc and VHS release, this footage retained the optical squeeze added to the extreme left and right sides of the frame so that, when projected onto Cinerama’s deeply-curved screen, the image would stretch back out to more or less normal. This has been optically corrected and properly integrated with the rest of the film. In the 22 years in-between these two home video releases, the color on the trims had faded so badly that the decision was made to layer the color from the 1991 transfer on top of the remastered-for-HD trims. Because the older transfer cropped the Ultra Panavision framing slightly, the area around the edges of the frame look almost monochrome. It’s noticeable, but not nearly as distracting as frame grabs of these scenes suggest. Because of where the magnetic soundtrack matching the action was placed on 70mm release prints, the audio drops out a second at the end of each cut. Harris has included these bits, using English subtitles so that viewers don’t miss any of the dialogue.

So, the vast majority of reinstated material consists of these trims, the same material integrated for that 1991 release. There is a bit of new material, though probably not as much as many were hoping for, and some of that has audio but no picture. The previously unreleased material with both picture and sound is easy to spot, as it’s the footage without the monochrome borders at the edges of the frame. There’s not a lot of this, but what’s there is worthwhile, most notably footage that expands the build-up to the intermission break, particularly at the Santa Rosita police station. The short version edits the build-up to the intermission extremely well, but the build-up in the long version is just as good, just a little different.

There are three short scenes in which there is sound but no picture: Sylvester’s theft of his girlfriend’s car, some more footage of the Crumps locked in the basement of a hardware store, and Culpepper’s telephone conversation with Jimmy the Crook (Buster Keaton, who in the short version has but one line and is onscreen for less than ten seconds).

Each of these three scenes offers a few surprises previously unknown to most Mad World fans: that Sylvester’s girlfriend is actually a married woman, for instance, and that it’s her car he steals. The telephone scene in one respect is almost heartbreaking: the audience hears Keaton’s voice but is denied the chance to actually see him and his reactions to Culpepper’s plotting.

But the sequence also completely changes one aspect of the film. In the short version it appears that Culpepper has suffered some sort of nervous breakdown. (“You know what I believe I’d like?” he asks his fellow cops. “A chocolate fudge sundae, with whipped cream and a cherry on top.”) In the short version, Culpepper’s decision to steal Smiler’s 350 Gs for himself isn’t made clear until very late in the film and comes as a genuine surprise, though there are clues earlier in the picture pointing to that.

In the reconstructed version all surprise is gone as made clear by that phone call to Keaton’s character. Further, Culpepper’s desire to have that chocolate fudge sundae is no longer the pathetic non sequitur of a broken man, but a ruse so that he can get out of the station and call Jimmy from a nearby drugstore. Nice as it would be to see and hear Keaton, the movie is better without that scene.

The brief audio-only footage of the Crumps in the basement is seriously damaged by one truly terrible decision. Unlike the other two audio-only scenes, which use publicity stills (possibly unreleased stills from contact sheets), this footage incorporates behind-the-scenes and set stills. In addition to Sid Caesar and Edie Adams, these stills make visible members of the film crew, including director Stanley Kramer himself, along with a massive Ultra Panavision camera in one shot. This has the effect of completely taking the viewer out of the movie. They’re interesting as photographs but they have no business in a reconstruction like this.

Likely no appropriate stills of the missing scene exist, but that was also true of some of the scenes missing from the 1954 A Star Is Born. In that Gold Standard of movie reconstruction, producer Ron Haver cleverly found ways around the problem, making those missing scenes play as seamlessly as possible. Clearly any evidence of the crew should have been cropped or matted out.

Overall, the long version has its advantages and disadvantages. Except for one early scene showing the mad motorists driving recklessly through a small desert community, with a few exceptions the cut footage mostly extends scenes from the short version and is no great loss without them. While some would argue the reinstated scenes merely make the long film even longer, in some ways it actually improves the pacing. In its short form the movie at times is a little schizophrenic and cuts too abruptly among the various subplots. The build-up in the longer version is more carefully and deliberately paced, in some respects making the payoffs that come later more satisfying. Interestingly, much of the cut scenes relate to the incredulous monitoring of the fortune-seekers by various law enforcement officers driving black-and-whites or riding in helicopters.

The cut footage also offers a short scene between Winters and Provine that provide Winters’s character with a selfless motive to want his share of the loot, a motive that’s completely absent in the short version. Moreover, there are a handful of great comedy bits the short version should have retained: Culpepper’s $5 bet with Police Chief Aloysius (William Demarest); Rancho Conejo air traffic controllers Carl Reiner and Eddie Ryder shaking hands, a last goodbye as Ding and Benjy’s out-of-control twin-engine plane is on a head-on collision course with their tower; a funny deleted line from cab driver Eddie “Rochester” Anderson near the climax.

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

The cut footage also make sense of continuity issues created by the short version, which had left viewers familiar only with that version baffled for years. They explain that the silver mine Otto Meyer speaks of is the place where the character played by Mike Mazurki lives. (I never realized this.) The long version also explains just why Hackett’s character is soaking wet in a couple of shots.

If ever there was a special edition prompted by consumer demand, it’s this. Though a popular catalog title, MGM was loathe to spend the vast sums of money a restoration/reconstructed would have required back in the ‘80s-through-early 2000s. Like David Strohmeier’s Cinerama restorations, IAMMMMW is only possible now because of cost-effective computer technologies that, combined with MGM’s preexisting HD master of the short version, now make such a release cost-effective.

The transfer of the extra-wide Ultra Panavision process (65mm, at 2.76:1) is impeccable, but then again it already was when the beleaguered MGM transferred the short version to HD a couple years ago. Excerpt for the new scenes, this is a same transfer as that, with only minor tweaking. The 5.1 surround, adapted from the original 6-track magnetic stereo, sounds great, a more noticeable improvement from MGM’s earlier Blu-ray of the short version. In addition to the original overture, entr’acte, and exit music, this release incorporates audio-only “police calls” heard sporadically throughout the intermission. All of this is over black, no title card, and there’s a lot of dead air between these calls but, apparently, that’s how they were spaced back in late 1963.

Criterion’s release offers both cuts of IAMMMMW on two Blu-ray discs and three DVDs, the third SD disc consisting of the same extra features spread across the two Blu-rays. The foldout packaging is nice, incorporating Jack Davis artwork commissioned for the 1970 rerelease. Inside there’s a booklet featuring an essay by Lou Lumenick and details about the film and sound elements sourced. Also included is a colorful but impractical map identifying some of the film’s shooting locations (Google Earth comes in very handy here).

Supplements are voluminous though curiously missing the “Something a Little Less Serious” documentary made for the 1991 home video version. That documentary featured Kramer and many more original cast members, all in better health and in greater number than they appear in the newer extras included here. “The Last 70mm Film Festival,” for instance, literally wheels-on Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney and Marvin Kaplan (one of the two gas station attendants whose business Winters’s character destroys), with Winters in good spirits but clearly not long for this world. Hosted by Billy Crystal and also featuring other cast and crewmembers, it’s a bit rambling, but enjoyable. (It’s a shame there’s no good video of the American Cinematheque screening I attended some years earlier, which had more of these folks and in far heartier shape.) Also included is a long excerpt from AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs focusing on IAMMMMW.

Other extras include original and reissue trailers; Stan Freberg’s TV and radio spots, which Freberg himself introduces; a two-part CBC program documenting the movie’s giant press junket and premiere; one-sided press interviews from 1963, featuring Kramer and his cast; an excerpt from a 1974 talk show hosted by Kramer and featuring Caesar, Hackett, and Winters; short but enlightening featurettes about the reconstruction process and another about the film’s visual and aural effects, including some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage.

And, best of all, there’s an informative and cozily personal audio commentary track on the long version by “Mad World aficionados” (they’re much more than that) Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo. It’s worth all 197 minutes.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World rates:

Movie: Excellent

Video: Excellent

Sound: Excellent

Supplements: Audio commentary, trailers, radio spots, press interviews, 1974 TV reunion, 2012 cast and crew reunion, Mad World locations map, AFI 100 Years…100 Laughs excerpt, featurettes on the reconstruction, sound and visual effects, booklet.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES (for the general release version).

Criterion 1963 / Color / 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision 70 / 197 and 163 min. / Street Date January 21, 2014 / $49.95

Starring Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine and a Few Surprises.

Director of Photography Ernest Laszlo

Music Ernest Gold

Written by William and Tania Rose

Produced and Directed by Stanley Kramer