Holiday Specials


By • Oct 30th, 2004 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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Several great films, and several more good ones, have arrived in time for Halloween. Any one of them would make a delicious holiday treat, but if you’ve got some bucks tucked away, I’d go for them all.


1959. 90 mins. B&W. 1.66:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for 16 X 9. In French w/ English subtitles. Also BLOOD OF THE BEASTS, Franju’s 1949 documentary. Archival interviews with Franju. Excerpt from a documentary featuring the writers of EWAF. New essays by Patrick McGrath and David Kalat.
Director, Georges Franju. Screenplay adaptation by Pierre Boileay & Thomas Narcejac, Jean Redon, Claude Sautet. Music by Maurice Jarre. Director of photography, Eugen Shuftan. Sets by Auguste Capelier.
With Pierre Brasseur, Alida Valli, Edith Scob, Juliette Mayniel.

Back in ’69/70, I selected the main musical themes for THE PROJECTIONIST (on DVD from Image Entertainment). Filmusic wasn’t one of director Harry Hurwitz’s strong suits, and we were offered a vast L.A. library to choose from, owned by Igo Kantor. Our lonely ‘Times Square’ theme was an early piece by Maurice Jarre, the rights to which he’d apparently sold. Imagine my shock, many years later, when watching EYES WITHOUT A FACE on Laserdisc, and hearing our 42nd Street theme played in its original incarnation, over the poetic descent of the masked, disfigured waif down the stairs of an empty mansion. I had seen the film when it came over from France in the early 60’s, but had long forgotten the use of the Jarre score. It’s an enjoyable if inadvertent experiment, to hear it used in both narratives.

Criterion should be most proud of the mastering; it really seems like a miracle. Even in 35mm, the film looked cloudy and cheap. Little care was taken back then; it was sold, after all, as part of a ‘B’ horror double bill, retitled THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DOCTOR FAUSTUS. Now it is restored to a sumptuousness of form that I wish Franju could have seen. The richness and image clarity makes it clear that it is the lyrical sibling of Cocteau’s films. Only here, the world has been jumbled. ‘Beauty’, now disfigured, in a porcelain mask out of BLOOD OF A POET, walks down the stairs with the moves of a ballerina, the way Josette Day moved up the stairs in LA BELLE ET LA BETE. Where mirrors were a liberating force in Cocteau’s work – leading everywhere from home to hell – they have been completely removed from Franju’s cloistered world.

Also included is Franju’s first film, BLOOD OF THE BEASTS, a 22 minute documentary on the slaughterhouses of Paris, shot in aesthetically lush B&W, and interlaced with serene imagery of the surrounding city. The effect is so point-expansive, it will toss your mind all over your living room (unless, or course, your monitor is not in your living room). It also informs his later work, particularly EYES WITHOUT A FACE. There’s a lot to compare between the objective slaughter of the beasts and the doctor’s quiet, quasi-professional attitude toward killing perfectly healthy women to provide his daughter a new visage. Franju is excerpted from two interviews, talking about both films, about why he used B&W for the documentary, about what horror in film means to him. The latter interview is conducted on a phony mad scientist set, and the ridiculously made-up, incongruously well-informed host stands toe-to-toe with the director, playing the encounter totally straight. It bears some resemblance to Franju’s use of counterpoint in his films, blending fantasy and realism, quite by accident I imagine, but still…

The choice double-bill would be EYES WITHOUT A FACE & FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, both from Criterion. How could you not want to see those titles in the space of an evening? But it also might be nice to double-bill it with another poetic B&W like CARNIVAL OF SOULS (Criterion), or even BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (also Criterion). It seems like Criterion has cornered the market for poetic fantasies…

(Disney DVD)
1959. 91 mins. 1.33:1 Aspect Ratio. ‘G’ rated. Three ‘making of’ and TV specials promoting the film’s release.
Directed by Robert Stevenson. Suggested by H.T. Kavanagh’s “Darby O’Gill” stories.
Written by Lawrence Edward Watkin. Music by Oliver Wallace.
With: Albert Sharpe, Janet Munro, Jimmy O’Dea, Sean Connery, Kieron Moore.

Ready for this pronouncement: DARBY O’GILL is one of the ten best fantasy films ever made. I’ll take on all comers, but first you have to see it. It didn’t do well in ’59, partially because it was too scary for its target audience (I still clearly remember children fleeing up the aisles at the Carnegie theater in New York City during the climactic Banshee sequences), and partially because of the difficult Irish brogue and occasional uses of Gaelic (when his staff begged Disney to dub the film into plain English, he would say, “Just listen…”) So it became the special property of those few who discovered and loved it, and I fancied myself high on the list. When I was in 11th Grade at The Horace Mann School in the Bronx, and discovered that an alumni was a high-ranking publicity person at Disney’s New York office, I asked him if I could borrow a 16mm Technicolor print, which he loaned me for weeks at a time. I studied every shot, running the film forward and backward (which my Bell & Howell projector was capable of doing, with the soundtrack playing in reverse). Now it has come out, rather quietly, on DVD, and I fear the same lack of attendance will greet it that occurred upon its theatrical release. It is arguably Disney’s best live action feature – and that includes 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, SONG OF THE SOUTH and MARY POPPINS (by the same director), and far too few people know about it.

Albert Sharpe tries to step into his own shoes.

The film stars Albert Sharpe (who Disney pulled out of retirement) as an estate caretaker Darby O’Gill, and Jimmy O’Dea as the mischievous King of the Leprechauns. Today, understandably, Sean Connery’s involvement in the project is played up. He’s a strong co-star, no question, and saw the film as a real breakthrough at the time, though in recent decades he’s been reluctant to discuss it. Once I saw him on a talk show with Richard Harris during which, after criticizing Harris for singing MacArthur Park, Harris flew into a fey impression of Connery singing and dancing in the film, which Connery refused to dignify with a response. (While he doesn’t dance in the film, he does sing, quite charmingly, and looks young and virile.) One of the supplements on the disc is a short, sweet documentary called MR CONNERY GOES TO HOLLYWOOD, and in it, the actor looks back on the film with something almost akin to warmth.

Opposite Connery, playing Darby’s daughter Katie, is Janet Munro, she of the sadly truncated life and career, who was the quintessential Disney heroine, shiny-cheeked and feisty, every child’s fantasy girl. She shared the same birth year as Brigitte Bardot. Bardot is now 70. Janet Munro has been dead for 32 years. An attempt to change her image in the 60s, accompanied by divorce, alcoholism and two miscarriages, saw her spiral out of the sweet, spunky image Disney had cultivated for her, and into oblivion. But she is perfect in her role here – frozen in celluloid – proud, vulnerable, radiating health and love of life.

The rest of the main cast delivers enthusiastic, nuanced performances, including Kieron Moore – fondly remembered fighting off ambulatory, carnivorous plants in a lighthouse in DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS – as the town bully. The supporting cast is also perfectly designed, down to the smallest speaking role, King Brian’s right hand man, Phadrig Oge, speaking only Gaelic (though in the barely seen rerelease version, redubbed after Disney’s death, his lines are read in English – an example of which is presented, probably by accident, as an excerpt in the supplementary doc on Sean Connery).

Disney DVD has seen to a proper mastering, at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which was the way it was released despite the predominance of standard wide screen (1.85:1) by ‘59. Better yet, they’ve kept the image dark and foreboding, even, subtley, during the daylight scenes, which is how it was, a film entirely haunted by the specter of dread with which Darby was toying. For behind the drunkenness and comradeship the old geezer shared with the ebullient faerie King was the threat of retribution by “all the unblessed spirits of the night.” Darby manipulates Brian into a compromising situation, with three grand wishes hanging in the balance, and because he takes too long to make those wishes, the Banshee and the coiste-bodhar (the Death Coach) are unloosed, wreaking terror and death in a third act as scary for kids as PINOCCHIO.

Having seen the film so many times, and on so many different prints, including one screened for me at the Disney studio in the 90s (at which screening I pointed out a misalignment problem during a dissolve – at 7 mins 5 secs, and wouldn’t you know it, they fixed the problem!), I can say that this is a near-impeccable transfer, vastly improved over any previous home video release, all of which have been sadly unsuitable for viewing. The film’s special effects are as state-of-the-art now as they were then, involving superb forced perspective shots, invisibly stable matte shots, rear screened leprechauns mixed with animatronic ones, pre-2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY solarization, the Shuftan process (and by the way, Shuftan himself was the DP on EYES WITHOUT A FACE), etc. The effects are rotated to keep the viewer from getting a fix on the type of effect being used, thus preventing the audience from being thrown out of the magic of the story. The laser disc was so mistimed that matte lines called attention to themselves, the formidable Banshee seemed blanched and one dimensional, and the sound mix was improperly balanced. The DVD fixes all of that, and even retimes a shot or two, making them better than I remember even during the theatrical release (take a look at Peter Ellenshaw’s glass matte at 1:06:05. In the 16mm Technicolor prints it was yellow – here it is a deliriously verdant green, matching the shots before it). The Banshee is not quite as good as it was in the Tech prints, but it’s damn close. Shimmering like satin, it lacks only the two-tone moments that the Tech print timing gave it. But I’m carping for no reason at all, because it’s such an overwhelmingly great job. And another of the supplemental features, LITTLE PEOPLE, BIG EFFECTS, does a lovely job clearly communicating the extraordinary effects work on a level accessible to the layman.

Oliver Wallace’s magnificent score never sounded better. Lawrence Edward Watkin’s screenplay, true to Ms. Kavanagh’s fanciful tales of rural Ireland, overflows with great one-liners and plot twists. Robert (JANE EYRE, OLD YELLER, THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR) Stevenson’s direction allows for a wafting sense of improvisation from those actors willing to snap up such opportunities (watch Sharpe’s wonderful reactions in Act One as Lord Fitzpatrick warns him about falling down on the job), and emphasizes the subtextural melancholy of an old man who might just be dreaming all this up as he crumbles emotionally under the humiliation of losing his respected position in the community.

Disney did a low-rent version of DARBY O’GILL called THE GNOME-MOBILE in ‘67, and by low-rent I don’t mean bad. It’s really a sweet little movie, with Walter Brennan playing duel roles as an industrial magnate and the diminutive king of the Redwood forest.
Brennan is great fun, the deep colors in the woods are saturated in the manner of RETURN OF THE JEDI, and it would be a rewarding double-bill with DARBY O’GILL.

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