Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"I know a sniveling coward when I see one...hiya, sniv..."

VCI Entertainment, the home video company that’s been catering to the eclectic tastes of classic movie and nostalgia fans over these many years with bodacious releases of movies, serials, cartoon collections and vintage TV shows, introduced a series of DVD’s under the aegis of “Nostalgia Film Factory” in September this year.  The first six releases spotlighted such vintage classics as The Most Dangerous Game, A Star is Born, Scarlet Street, My Favorite Brunette, The Inspector General, and Three Came Home …and there are future titles in the pipeline, like A Farewell to Arms, Father’s Little Dividend, and Lady of Burlesque.

“So what?”  I can hear you saying, and it can’t be the voices in my head because I detect a faint New England accent.  “These are all public domain titles, available in any nearby Target bargain bin.  Hell, I can go over to YouTube right now and fire one up before you can finish typing this sentence!”  True, the public domain can be a wonderful thing, cowboys and cowgirls…but it can also be a harsh mistress.  Since the concept of public domain means that any shmoe with a print of a P.D. film can slap it on a DVD and reap all resulting sales as pure gravy…there’s less incentive to make sure that print is watchable as long as those 99¢ Target buys keep racking up.  (Another potential hazard: some mook might have the audacity to colorize this stuff.)  Granted, there’s a lot of shite in the public domain—but there’s also some fine film classics in with the dross.  The six Nostalgia Film Factory releases mentioned in paragraph one are all pretty good movies, and many film fans would be willing to go the extra mile for a nice print of same, particularly in this age of DVD and Blu-Ray.

The Most Dangerous Game, a 1932 film that had the distinction of being filmed at night on the same sets as King Kong, got the Criterion nod in 2001 (though unfortunately, several unscrupulous P.D. companies started using that print for their own nefarious releases).  Kino-Lorber released a remastered version of Scarlet Street in 2005, using a spiffy Library of Congress print.  Kino has also put out a number of titles listed under “The Selznick Collection,” including A Farewell to Arms and A Star is Born.  I was the lucky winner of the Star is Born DVD during my friend Jill’s (at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence) March on March blogathon, as a matter of fact…so with the VCI disc I now have two copies of the film.  Do I really need two copies?

A wiser man than I once said that the secret to sales success was selling the sizzle, not the steak.  (He just said this to make me hungry, by the way.)  Nostalgia Film Factory’s A Star is Born release is jazzed up with a few extras: you get the 1937 film starring March and Janet Gaynor, but you also get a Betty Boop cartoon, Housecleaning Blues (1937), a short subject, News Parade of 1937, and the inaugural chapter of Jungle Jim, a serial released in that same year.  VCI and Nostalgia Film Factory have taken a page from the Warner Bros. playbook by creating a fun-filled entertainment package that tries to recreate what it might have been like walking into your local movie palace to see Star is Born, plus selected short subjects.  Warner Home Video did the same thing with many of their DVD box set collections, and to my admittedly limited knowledge was one of the first major companies to do this with a series of VHS releases entitled “A Night at the Movies.”

I’ve had these Nostalgia Film Factory discs sitting next to my computer for a while now, and yesterday I decided to open one up to look at the presentation.  I chose My Favorite Brunette because it’s a film I can have on in the background while I work on other things (I was doing yesterday’s “Coming Distractions” post) and the disc starts off with a Noveltoon released that same year (1947), Super Lulu—in which Marjorie (Marge) Henderson’s famed comic strip creation dreams her way into the Jack and the Beanstalk tale and rescues her father from the mean ol’ giant by tapping into her inner Clark Kent.  (Or perhaps that should be Clarice Kent.)  It’s an amusing little time-filler; I personally think Little Lulu was better served in comic books (and I’m not really a huge fan of the Famous Studios’ cartoon product) but it made me smile a couple of times.  This was followed by a Sports Parade (“Thrill a Second”) newsreel that had a similar novelty value.

The serial chapter included on this DVD is cheating a bit…it’s actually the inaugural installment of a 1946 cliffhanger entitled Lost City of the JungleLost City has earned a little infamy in that it featured as its evil mastermind famed character actor Lionel Atwill, playing a no-goodnik named Sir Eric Hazarias, a foreign spy battling hero Russell “Lucky” Hayden (as Rod Stanton, an operative for something called “the United Peace Foundation”).  Now…the infamy wasn’t due to the fact that Atwill was slumming in a serial (he also appears in three other chapter plays, Junior G-Men of the Air, Captain America and Raiders of Ghost City)—it was that he died during the production, and Universal was forced to get around that by promoting one of the characters (played by John Mylong) to chief villain status, alibing that he was actually Atwill’s boss.  Lionel’s departure also dictated the use of a double (the henchmen of Sir Eric would take their orders from a man whose back was always to the camera) and insertion of stock footage featuring the actor.  VCI released this serial to DVD in 2006…and seeing that I own a copy I kinda had already watched it; it’s indisputably a mess (the missing Atwill seams are hard to ignore) but it has its moments.

And then…on to the main event!  Back in 2010, I mentioned that My Favorite Brunette was second only to Son of Paleface as my favorite Bob Hope comedy.  It’s a first-rate send-up of film noir conventions: Bob plays a baby photographer who’s mistaken for a private eye by damsel-in-distress Dorothy Lamour (the titular dame), and she asks for his help in dealing with some bad guys who are holding her uncle prisoner.  Bob’s a little reluctant at first; the villains—which include Charles Dingle (channeling his scoundrel in The Little Foxes) and John Hoyt—convince him that Dottie’s off her trolley…but Hope changes his mind when he snaps a photograph that the baddies desperately want back.  In the running time of 87 minutes, Bob ends up framed for a murder and tangles with henchmen Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr. before arriving at the happy ending.  (There are two other cameos in this film that I’m going to spoil for you in the next few paragraphs, so if you haven’t seen the picture you might want to stop here.)

The secret ingredient to a successful Bob Hope comedy was placing Bob’s antics against a background of menace, and many of my favorite vehicles of the comedian—including The Great Lover and the two other “My Favorite” films, Blonde and Spy—make good use of this formula.  Brunette ups the ante with the participation of Lorre and Chaney; Peter is a knife-wielding psycho who dislikes the nickname Bob’s character has bestowed upon him (“Cuddles”) and Lon, Jr. is basically Lennie of Of Mice and Men redux.  (Bob even references this in a funny throwaway bit: “I’ll buy you a rabbit later.”)

In one hilarious scene, Bob is being held prisoner by the bad guys in a sanitarium and he gets a visit from Lon, who’s brought him food on a tray.  Bob gets an idea that Lon might come in handy when it comes to, say, bending the bars on his window:

RONNIE (Bob): You know, Willie?  I like you, too…
WILLIE (Lon): Y-Y-You do?
RONNIE: Yes, sir!  What a physique!  Boulder Dam with legs!  And look at those shoulders…and that arm!  Mmm…like a sack of doorknobs… (Willie flexes his arm, trapping Ronnie’s fingers underneath) Oh!  Recess!  Recess!  Recess! (Willie unflexes) I’m just kidding…huh…
WILLIE: Hey, Chummy…d-d-do you care if I feel your muscle, too?
RONNIE: No!  Go ahead… (Willie feels his arm) Look around…it’s there someplace…
WILLIE: Oh—there it is!
RONNIE: That’s it…
WILLIE: I-It’s just like a woman’s
RONNIE: Yeah… (He shoots him a look, and then Willie squeezes his arm) Easy!  Easy!  Easy!  (As Willie lets go) Every thing you touch turns to rigor mortis!

Willie is goaded by Ronnie into showing off and bending the bars outside the window…but just when Willie says his goodbyes he stops…and puts the bars back into their previous position.  “Y-Y-You gotta be neat, you know,” he explains to his “chum.”  Chaney’s performance is one of my very favorites, and he worked so well with Bob that he appeared with the comedian again in another top-notch Hope comedy, Casanova’s Big Night (as Hope’s dungeon cellmate in that one).

“All my life I’ve wanted to be a hard-boiled detective,” explains baby photographer Jackson to the man who rents the office next to him, shamus Sam McCloud.  “Like Humphrey Bogart, or Dick Powell…or even Alan Ladd.”  The joke is that McCloud is played by Ladd (he has his back turned to Bob during this scene, but Ladd’s voice gives him away) in a funny cameo—but the best surprise comes at the end when a prison warden (Willard Robertson), who’s just saved Hope’s character from the gas chamber, remembers he forgot to tell “Harry,” the executioner.  Harry is Bing Crosby, who’s clearly ticked off at this turn of events, and the story goes that Hope promised to pay his “Road” compadre $5,000 to do the cameo (which was later donated to charity).  This final scene is one of my favorite wrap-ups in any Hope film—though you can argue it’s similar to the ending in The Princess and the Pirate: leading lady Virginia Mayo runs to Crosby’s arms at the end of the movie, prompting Bob to grouse: “How do you like that? I knock myself out for nine reels, and some bit player from Paramount comes over and gets the girl!  That’s the last film I do for Goldwyn.”  (And it was.)

Because My Favorite Brunette reverted to the public domain in 1975, finding a nice print of the movie has always been a bit of a chore (my friend Dorian—I get to call her “Dor”—at Tales of the Easily Distracted lamented this in a piece on the film back in 2010).  Though there are a gazillion versions of the movie available on all kinds of home video, a nice print of the movie can be found on a 2010 Shout! Factory set entitled The Bob Hope Collection (which also features two of the Road films, Rio and Bali, as well as The Lemon Drop Kid and The Seven Little Foys) which was taken from the original negative stored at Sony.  And yet…the print of Brunette showcased on the VCI-Nostalgia Film Factory disc is in amazingly good shape; it’s definitely the best one I’ve ever seen on a P.D. release at any rate.  If you’re looking for an inexpensive disc that will deliver the goods—and includes a short or two in the bargain—you’ll want to throw it in your online shopping cart.  (The SRP is $9.99, but DVDPlanet currently has the best price.)


Bill Crider said...

I've seen a scary number of the films and serials mentioned this time. I love My Favorite Brunette.

ClassicBecky said...

I seem to remember that Alan Ladd offered Bob a swig on a bottle of booze. After choking and wheezing, Bob says "Smooth!" in such a funny way I loved it. Did that happen in this movie or did my memory add it?! Good article, Ivan, although you accidentally forgot to say that "The Ghost Breakers" is actually Bob's best comedy...

Mike Doran said...

You might have also mentioned that My Favorite Brunette has genuine educational value.

In what other film can you see Peter Lorre explaining separation of powers under our Constitution to Lon Chaney while throwing knives at a wall?

Let's see anybody top that these days.

Now I've got the Little Lulu theme song running through my head, including the lyric that we don't dare quote on a family blog.
Thanx a heep.

And to cap it off today:

dedfear 3

I mean, some things you just can't make up ...