BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE WARNER BROS. ROMANCE CLASSICS COLLECTION

By • Jan 29th, 2009 •

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“American critics have never taken Delmer Daves seriously, and the way things look, they probably never will,” wrote Jean-Pierre Coursodon in 1983. Daves is somewhat forgotten, although as a director, writer and producer his film output should have acquired him Auteur status – Particularly in the Western genre.

His first Western, BROKEN ARROW (1950) starred Jimmy Stewart and was supposedly the first to focus heavily on the Native American point-of-view. 3:10 TO YUMA (1957), a classic character-driven Western had the unfortunate luck of being remade recently as a pretty shallow affair. His final Western (which many consider his masterpiece), THE HANGING TREE (1959), with Gary Cooper, Karl Malden and Maria Schell was pulled from a planned DVD release last year. Daves’ Westerns are complex character studies with a closer resemblance to Anthony Mann’s Westerns then the action westerner of the time.

According to an interview with Daves’ son, Michael, during the making of THE HANGING TREE Daves fell ill and Karl Malden took over the direction of the final shooting days. Forbidden from making any more Westerns due to his weak heart, Daves made a sharp turn to teenage melodramas, Technicolor soaps directed at a younger audience then the more adult Douglas Sirk films.

A SUMMER PLACE (1959), the first of the teen-soaps that Daves wrote, produced and directed (based on pre-existing best sellers) was a melodramatic masterpiece. Weaving together the love story of the teenage Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee (two recent Sirk graduates – IMITATION OF LIFE, 1959) and the love affair of his mother (Dorothy McGuire) and her father (Richard Egan). The parents are free-minded and the kids, innocent as they may be, are more willing to take responsibility for their actions (teen pregnancy) then their elders. Although this is a recurring theme in Daves’ subsequent teen-soaps, the complexity in which he explores this relationship is never duplicated. A SUMMER PLACE pulled Daves into what his son calls, “Troy Donahue hell.” At which point we dive into the new box-set from Warner Bros.

PARRISH (1961) is the story of a youngster’s making into a man in the world of tobacco growing. Donahue stars in the title role and Claudette Colbert as his single mother (her last film role) who marries the ruthless tobacco tycoon, Judd Raike (Karl Malden). Parrish’s mother is a supportive, understanding mother who is also his best friend. She knows she has to take care of herself and marries into the Raike’s wealth, despite Parrish’s disdain of the tycoon. Raike is disappointed in his own incompetent sons and sees in Parrish a potential heir to his kingdom.

Karl Malden’s performance is the second best in the Daves melodramas (behind Arthur Kennedy’s drunk father in A SUMMER PLACE). He brings an intensity to the film that few actors could deliver. The self-made Raike yells and berates his daughter for being a liar, then gently tells her he loves her and she should be truthful. He makes his son burn down the competitor’s plantation and then sits back, watching him getting beat up by Parrish. Judd Raike knows that nothing he can do will help save his life’s work once he’s gone, his stubborn ways leave him hopeless when he drives Parrish away, the only hope he had of preserving his name and legacy.

Before settling for Judd’s daughter, Paige (Sharon Hugueny), Parrish falls in love with a poor farm girl, Lucy (Connie Stevens), who is later found to be pregnant with Judd’s son, Edgar, and with Alison (Diane McBain), the spoiled daughter of a kind tobacco grower and Edgar’s future wife. The cinematic and melodramatic process of falling in love – by setting one’s eyes on the other for the first time – has no longevity in PARRISH. True love takes longer to establish.

PARRISH has Elia Kazan-like aspirations in its grandeur, but it’s not quite SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, nor is it A SUMMER PLACE. It is however an engaging melodrama with a lot to offer and easily the best film in this collection.

SUSAN SLADE (1961) is based on a book by Doris Hume, wonderfully titled “The Sin of Susan Slade.” According to Warners this is the first time the film has seen the light of home video.

The teenage Susan Slade (Connie Stevens) and her parents board a yacht on route to their new home. On the yacht Susan falls in love for the first time, an intense affair that leaves her pregnant. Following her lover’s death in a mountain climbing accident, Susan’s mother (Dorothy McGuire) and father (Lloyd Nolan) decide to cover-up the shame in order to protect Susan’s future – they take the newborn baby as their son and as Susan’s brother. While struggling with her mixed emotions over the situation, Susan is courted by two young men, Wells Corbett (Bert Convy) and Hoyt Brecker (Troy Donahue).

To consider SUSAN SLADE seriously would be difficult, it screens more like a parody of a teen-soap then a genuine one, especially if we assume that Daves, who had complete authorship of the film, was getting tired of the genre. To reinforce that statement, during the early romantic make-out scene between Susan and her mountain-climber, the Theme from A Summer Place plays – A throwback to Daves’ first melodrama and possibly a joke at his own expense. The classic track was highly recognizable; it became a No. 1 hit for Percy Faith in 1960 and was the best selling single of that year.

And if more evidence is needed for the indulgent extravagance of SUSAN SLADE, Daves supplies us with one of the most outrageous moments ever put on film, and a great case against smoking… or at least a sound warning about letting babies play with fire.

ROME ADVENTURE (1962) has very little going for it. Susan Pleshette stars as Prudence Bell, who wants to adventure in Rome. There she is courted by a rich man, an American student, and Troy Donahue, whose heart she has to fight Angie Dickinson for.

ROME ADVENTURE was the last collaboration between Daves and Donahue and it may have been an excuse for a vacation in Italy rather then a story to make a film of. There is very little drama or character development. Daves’s boredom with the material is evident in his screenplay, half of which reads as if it had been pasted from a guidebook of Italy. For every minute of plot we get 2 minutes of sight seeing. The only worthwhile scene in the film involves a cameo by the great trumpeter, Al Hirt, who has a blast making fun of himself, protecting his woman in a club brawl.

Coursodon thought that “Daves’s string of Troy Donahue vehicles in the sixties lowered him from semi-obscurity to total disrepute.” For better or worse, the Daves melodramas were personal movies over which the director/producer/writer had full control. With the exception of A SUMMER PLACE, they may not have reached the heights of his best Westerns, but they are closer to being the works of an Auteur then those of a hired hand.

PALM SPRINGS WEEKEND (1963) is an odd film in this collection for it is neither a drama, directed by Daves, or even romantic. Norman Taurog directed this teen-vacation comedy.

Taurog is an interesting director with an overwhelming output of films. He directed almost 180 shorts and features in a career spanning the early 1910s to 1968. The nature of his films is similar to that of a TV director – professionally made formula films, often parts of franchises – Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney musicals, Martin & Lewis comedies and Elvis films (Taurog directed more Elvis vehicles then anyone else). Despite this dubious filmography, Taurog still holds the honor of being the youngest director to ever win an Academy Award (SKIPPY, 1931).

In between Elvis movies, Taurog directed PALM SPRINGS WEEKEND, which clearly takes after MGM’s WHERE THE BOYS ARE. (1960). The film’s tag line makes this undeniable: “It’s where the boys are and the girls are.” Both take after American International Pictures’ BEACH PARTY series.

It’s strange to see the Hollywood studios trying to exploit the Beach/Ski/Pajama Party formula and give it serious tones. WHERE THE BOYS ARE starts as a fun film and then slaps the viewer across the face with issues such as rape and the results of being promiscuous. PALM SPRINGS WEEKEND is a light-hearted romp that ends with a dramatic climax and attempts a more thoughtful conclusion. Troy Donahue was always modeled to be a preppy Pat Boone to the edgy James Dean (Troy’s wardrobe often features Dean’s iconic red jacket), but for the studios to do the same to the already tame AIP productions makes little sense. How do you water down Pat Boone?

In PALM SPRINGS WEEKEND a basketball team from LA, fronted by team captain Jim Munroe (Troy Donahue), heads to Palm Springs for a weekend of fun and romance. There are some entertaining moments courtesy of Zeme North as a Judo wrestling tom-boy, kid-star Bill Mummy as a youngster she babysits, and Jerry Van Dyke the as scene-stealing Biff. Overall the stars are too old to be playing teenagers or even college students. Donahue’s youth has gone, Van Dyke’s hair is grey, and Connie Stevens looks great, but far from 18.

Troublemakers crash a house-party in one of the best scenes, but somehow they manage to look even preppier then the main guys. A hoodlum in a leather jacket makes one miss BEACH PARTY’s Erich Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck), whose party-crashing scenes are always comic highlights.

Norman Taurog went on to direct two Frankie Avalon vehicles for American International Pictures in 1965, SERGEANT DEAD HEAD and DR. GOLDFOOT AND HIS BIKINI MACHINE. The latter became a cult classic and spawned its own (terrible) remake, DR. GOLDFOOT AND THE GIRL BOMBS (Directed by Mario Bava, 1966).

The WARNER BROS. ROMANCE CLASSICS COLLECTION is uneven and could have been sold as a more complete collection had PALM SPRINGS WEEKEND been replaced by A SUMMER PLACE. The lack of special features is disappointing. Commentaries or featurettes about Delmer Daves and Troy Donahue would have added much value to this collection.

The main problem in screening the DVD’s is the mediocre video transfers. Great Technicolor dramas use colors to convey emotions, and with those muted, the emotional impact is lessened. Had the films been treated as well as the releases of A SUMMER PLACE or BROKEN ARROW they would have played far better.

That said, the release of these films on DVD is welcomed and the packaging would look great on your shelf. Especially for fans of Daves, Donahue or Connie Stevens this collection is RECOMMENDED.

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