Holiday Specials

FIR’S HOLIDAY NEW YEAR’S SPECIAL – 2014

By • Dec 30th, 2014 •

Share This:

It’s been a good season at the cinemas, and it’s been a good year for home video, despite everything we’ve been led to expect. Here are some suggestions for gifts, ranging from the collections to the obscure.

CHAPLIN’S MUTUAL COMEDIES 1916-1917 (Flicker Alley) From the Blackhawk Films Collection. 2014. BluRay & DVD.

Includes: THE FLOORWALKER, THE FIREMAN, THE VAGABOND, ONE A.M., THE COUNT, THE PAWNSHOP, BEHIND THE SCREEN, THE RINK, EASY STREET, THE CURE, THE IMMIGRANT, and THE ADVENTURER. Plus two additional docs.

The collection comes in a dark metal box containing five discs – two BluRays and three DVDs. In addition to the twelve extraordinary shorts comprising what is debatably Chaplin’s core output, filmed over an eighteen-month period at Mutual Studios, it has two feature-length supplementals: THE BIRTH OF THE TRAMP (63 mins), and CHAPLIN’S GOLIATH about Eric Campbell – the Tramp’s celluloid nemesis in the Mutual comedies.

This collection is represented as a restoration, but I see it as something else – they are not restored so much as they are different than what has been available before. Comparing them with previous releases, say from Image/Blackhawk several years ago, there are different shots, additional shots, more wear at times, and extraordinary sharpness at almost all times, which actually is the greatest revelation, since seeing Chaplin’s and Edna Purviance’s expressions in such sharp detail changes their emotional states, and not just by slight nuances, but as complete re-interpretations of what moods Chaplin was going for. Because of this, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to unload the Image collection you’ve lived with all these years – it’s literally like having two completely different versions of the Mutual output in your library.

Let’s just take EASY STREET, one of Chaplin’s most personal films. In the beginning, when he sits on the mission bench after the service, a friendly employee on one side of him and Edna to his left, her eyes in the Flicker Alley print are so luminous that they actually distracted me from concentrating on Chaplin. In the older Image version we can detect her pupils moving if we squint really hard, but all attention is on the tramp.

And in the classic confrontation with the giant urban bully (Campbell), when Chaplin pulls one of his masterful comic transpositions, making a gas-lit-street-lamp into the anesthetic-delivery-device in a dentist’s office in order to subdue his enemy, there is suddenly an intense close-up of Campbell inside the glass fixture, his face contorted in full villain mode, with part of Chaplin visible at screen left. Shocking! That shot didn’t exist anywhere else to my knowledge, having seen the film in varying prints over the past fifty+ years. And my informed guess, considering how stringent Chaplin was with his close-ups, is that this was a test print, and that Chaplin cut that close-up out of future prints. It’s actually disturbing on a first viewing, it’s so not Chaplin, but at the same time it’s remarkable to have it as evidence of what else existed and was possibly removed in the editing process.

Considering that it’s been a hundred years, I don’t think a definitive verdict on that shot will ever surface. However, I emailed Kevin Brownlow, in my opinion the world’s foremost authority on silent film, and he kindly responded: “I remember the close-up of Campbell from the version of EASY STREET we saw at school in the 40s, which would have originated with the foreign negative. (Sometimes in foreign versions, you find completely fresh sequences – although more often you’ll discover that they are lacking something exceptional from the domestic version.)” Which throws my theory into question.

And, I’m compelled to mention, the woman playing the bully’s wife, in this razor sharp version, is both prettier and sexier than I’ve ever seen her. After the tramp, as a recently recruited cop, helps her out by not arresting her and even giving her some food, she rewards his compassion by throwing a flower-pot out of her window at him. There’s always been a logic problem there, but now, having seen her in better detail, I wonder if there was some interplay between her and the tramp that was cut from the final print, which would have motivated her sudden change of attitude toward him?

That’s what it’ll be like for you wandering through these twelve films – revelations galore. Chaplin has said it was the creative period in his life he enjoyed most, and you can literally feel the inventive energy oozing out of him, made all the more striking given the sharpness of the prints.

The twelve films have alternate music scores, generally one orchestral and one simpler piano version. One is even by Carl Davis.

Many sources are quoted as having supplied the materials used to create these versions of the films, and there’s also a nice booklet enclosed that discusses the Mutual years. The only thing I found questionable in the pamphlet was Chaplin’s height, which is said here to have been five-foot-six-and-a-half. I’d heard five foot four, and five foot five, but never five-foot-six+. When Chaplin returned to the States in 1972 to receive his Academy Award, I spent some time right next to him at Lincoln Center, and he did not look five foot six. However, he was also 83 years old by then, and the years might have robbed him of an inch or two.

The MARTIN & LEWIS COLLECTION, Volume 2 (WB Archives) All titles in color. (This DVD collection is manufactured on demand; to order it, visit www.WarnerArchive.com)

LIVING IT UP (1954) Dir. Norman Taurog

YOU’RE NEVER TOO YOUNG (1955) Dir. Norman Taurog

ARTISTS AND MODELS (1955) Dir. Frank Tashlin

PARDNERS (1956) Dir. Norman Taurog

HOLLYWOOD OR BUST (1956) Dir. Frank Tashlin

With: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Lori Nelson, Jeff Morrow, Lon Chaney Jr., Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Agnes Moorehead, Shirley MacLaine, Dorothy Malone, Eva Gabor, Anita Ekberg, ‘Slapsie Maxie’ Rosenbloom, Diana Lynn, Nina Foch, Raymond Burr, Veda Ann Borg, Janet Leigh, Edward Arnold, Fred Clark, Sheree North, Sammy White, Sig Ruman, Milicent Patrick (unconfirmed).

I can’t get over the 50s-Universal-horror-related co-incidences in this collection: Lori Nelson (leading lady in REVENGE OF THE CREATURE) appears in PARDNERS, as does Jeff Morrow who, as an insanely jealous scientist, wanted to kill his wife in the horror-noir third installment of the series – THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US. And Milicent Patrick possibly appears in LIVING IT UP. She designed the ‘Creature’ for the beloved Universal trilogy, the first part of which opened four months before the Martin & Lewis film.

Well, now that I’ve gotten over that, I can go on to recommend this robust collection of the comedian/crooner duo’s work, and even though they were on the rocks by the time they told us they’d be back at the end of PARDNERS, and had dissolved their professional relationship for good before HOLLYWOOD OR BUST opened, this is a fine collection of their work, and includes two titles directed by former WB animation guru Frank Tashlin, who is much revered today. Tashlin’s ARTISTS AND MODELS in particular, which is about comic book artists, has an animation-worthy color palette, and playfully cartoon-like direction. Shirley MacLaine and Jerry Lewis have a raucous musical number (‘Innamorata’) midway through the film, which features an exemplary use of a set: they don’t leave that stairway till they’ve covered every inch of it.

THE DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS (StarVista Entertainment) 1974 – 1984.

When Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis split up, they both had surprisingly strong solo careers. Martin went into features, proving equally adept at comedy and drama…and westerns. They also both tackled TV, Lewis with his decades of Muscular Dystrophy Telethons, and Martin with his faux-drunken celebrity roasts.

A remarkable and diverse collection of personalities dedicated to cracking wise at the expense of the ‘man (or woman) of the hour’ are presented here as Dean Martin hosts ten seasons of the popular roasts, and fortunately, although time may not have been kind to the visual quality – TV was what it was in those days – it has been overly kind to us, because contained within these discs are not only laughs and fun galore, but a time capsule of some of Hollywood’s, and most of TV’s, great comic talents.

Some celebs seem uncomfortable and unsuited to the format. Kirk Douglas, for instance, laughs heartily at the barbs aimed his way, but seems to be putting it on. Being accused of wishing he were Burt Lancaster isn’t the fine stuff comedy heaven is paved with. That episode runs a scant 25 minutes.

The most overwhelming roast of the bunch was probably the one aimed at Dean Martin himself. Forgive me for listing the roasters, but you need to read it to believe it: Don Rickles (Roastmaster), Mohammad Ali & Howard Cosell, Joey Bishop, Foster Brooks, Ruth Buzzi, Charlie Callas, Angie Dickenson, Georgia Engel, Barry Goldwater & Hubert Humphrey, Bob Hope, Gabe Kaplan, Gene Kelly, Rich Little, Paul Lynde, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Joe Namath, Tony Orlando, Nipsey Russell, Jimmy Stewart & John Wayne, and Orson Welles. And then there are cameos – by Milton Berle, Ermest Borgnine, Art Carney, William Conrad, Dom DeLuise, Phyllis Diller, Totie Fields, Jackie Gleason, Peter Graves, Monty Hall, Jack Klugman & Tony Randall, Evel Knievel, Michael Landon, Jan Murray, Freddie Prinze, and Danny Thomas.

There’s an hour and forty minutes of this, and you can tell that they judiciously picked the best material and edited out the rest, so it must have been a long evening. Quite apart from all the fun, so many of them are gone now that it’s a treasure of a time capsule. John Wayne, looking as he did for his role in THE SHOOTIST, is every bit the robust, in-control Duke that we remember. And yet, a few years later he would finally lose the long, staunch battle he had fought against the Big C. Scott Eyman has just written a book called ‘John Wayne: The Life and Legend.’ I thumbed through the later chapters to see if the author mentioned the roast. He didn’t, though he did say that Wayne busied himself with TV appearances in the last few years of his life rather than be idle. Also on the dais was Jimmy Stewart, who hadn’t done a theatrical feature in five years, but appeared in THE SHOOTIST to be with his old friend one last time. The roasters pretty much left Wayne alone; however they kidded Stewart mercilessly (and he got properly roasted in May of ’78). It had a special resonance, seeing them together at the event.

As a nod to the political contingent in the audience there was Barry Goldwater from the Right (“I wish we had a hundred like Dean in Washington. Unfortunately we have ten thousand.”), and Hubert Humphrey repping the Left (“Here I am from the Democratic Party, Barry Goldwater from the Republican Party, and we’re both here to honor Dean Martin who is in favor of a third party…or a fourth party, or a fifth party, or any party as long as the ice holds up.”). Both were well-scripted, though my compadres noted that Goldwater handled his lines too stiffly. I rather liked his dry delivery. Humphrey was in jolly spirits and laughed heartedly at the effect his jokes produced.

And, it was fascinating to see who were the sharpest wits in the crowd. I’d have to say Orson Welles and Nipsey Russell. Clearly most of the celebs wrote their own material (or had it written for them by loyal scribes), because Welles’ choice of words could only have been scripted by him. Joey Bishop was quite clever. The FIR screening committee commented specifically on the fact that they’d forgotten how funny he was, as opposed to just being a lesser link in the Sinatra ‘Rat Pack.’ (Bishop died in 2007, aged 89, the last member of the Pack to depart).

Rowan & Martin were also up to the task, prompting one of my guests to wonder why there are no comedy teams anymore. Interesting question.

SEARCH THE GLOBE FOR THE FILM FAN ON YOUR LIST
By Glenn Andreiev

I still cherish a cinematic present from last year. It’s a DVD 0of a 1956 Japanese science fiction thriller titled MYSTERIOUS SATELLITE OVER TOKYO. I had always known this film under its American release title – WARNING FROM SPACE. You may have seen this bizarre gem that I have such a fondness for. Starfish-shaped aliens try to warn Japanese scientists about an upcoming collision with a runaway planet. The versions I saw on television and home video were badly dubbed and re-edited. Since WARNING FROM SPACE was in public domain, no care had been put into its preservation. Over the years, all of the film’s color had faded into variations of Pepto Bismol pink.

I asked a friend: “I wonder if a pristine copy of this film is available in Japan”. He went onto Amazon Japan and found WARNING FROM SPACE in its original Japanese version. I was thrilled to finally see the film in its true, beautiful colors and without the clunky American dubbing. It’s also interesting that the Japanese version has the starfish aliens appear only once. The American edit has them appear in three different scenes, thanks to optically reversing and flipping certain shots. They wanted more starfish for their buck. The original Japanese trailers on this DVD were edited from out-takes depicting failed special effects that never made it into the finished film. This was one truly unique, inexpensive, terrific stocking stuffer.

Another overseas favorite that slipped into public domain/American re-edit hell was SEDDOK, L’EREDE DA SATANA, an Italian exploitation treat from 1961 that was released here as ATOM AGE VAMPIRE. It is a grisly film about a lovesick scientist restoring the face of Jeanette, an exotic dancer, who was scarred in an auto accident. SEDDOK/A.A VAMPIRE resembles a racy version of Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE. In its American edit, hasty title cards start ATOM AGE VAMPIRE, followed by a sloppy edit revealing Jeanette rushing into her dressing room after one of her performances. The uncut imported Italian version begins with Jeanette’s stage show. Jeanette’s dance, not something suitable for the kiddies, has a fun, bargain basement LA DOLCE VITA charm to it. It sets the tone for this rare sensual sci-fi treat. The original Italian edit of SEDDOK spotlights its star, blonde Susanne Loret. With an hourglass figure topped with a slightly imperfect jaw-heavy face, her Jeanette is more real, even ordinary, and her plight has our sympathy.

Hammer films, the British studio who gave us those thrill-packed gothic horror treats of the 50’s and 60’s has re-released their most popular films on Blu-Ray. The Blu-Rays available in their native England have some delicious extras that are not available in the American releases of these films. The British Blu-Ray of their 1959 hit THE MUMMY, for example, has an entire extra disc of extras. The British Blu-Ray release of DRACULA (released here as HORROR OF DRACULA), hosts an amazing color restoration. Christopher Lee’s bloodshot eyes and red-stained fangs really pop. The green-ish silk sheets covering Dracula’s latest victim have the color and look of real silk. Watching the British Blu-Ray of DRACULA shows off the care and talent put into this still seductive horror classic.

There are other foreign made cult classics that are wonderfully different from their American re-edits, all worth that Google, Amazon and eBay search. They include the more comedic Japanese release of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, the pre-Hollywood comedies Sophia Loren made in Italy, and the original Italian versions of gothic horror films starring Barbara Steele. If you have a Barbara Steele fan on your gift list, consider prowling Russian home video sites for 1967’s THE VIY. It’s an eye-popping Russian language film adaptation of the same Nikolai Gogol horror yarn that Ms. Steele’s BLACK SUNDAY is based on.

A very important parting note: these European and Asian DVD cult classics are on a different DVD format than American DVD’s and Blu-Rays. American home video is on Region 1, Europe on Region 2, and much of Asia is Region 3. Most home video players purchased in the United States can only play Region 1, not the Region 2 or 3 discs purchased from overseas. Make sure, somehow, that the film fan on your list has an all-region video player.

THE NINTH CONFIGURATION
BluRay review by Ben Peeples

Hen’s Tooth Video and Westchester Films. 1980. 118 minutes. Written and Directed by William Peter Blatty. Starring Stacey Keach, Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Robert Loggia, Moses Gunn, Jason Miller, and Joe Spinell. Supplementals include audio commentary by William Peter Blatty moderated by Mark Kermode, deleted and alternate scenes including an altered ending, introduction to the film by Mark Kermode made for British television. 2.35:1. DTS-MA Mono. $29.99.

Last year, the Film Society of Lincoln Center held a screening of this film in a faded-to-magenta print that had clearly seen better days. Still, this was possibly the first time since its 1980 theatrical release that it had been shown to a paying audience in New York City, maybe even in America, and I was told by a number of people there that it was extraordinary that even a faded print of NINTH existed.

There are few films that feel as unhinged and detached from meeting your expectation as this one. What starts as a dark comedy slowly
turns into a bizarre psychodrama, before finally becoming a dead serious message movie about redemption. Throw in an exceptionally haunting monologue and a bar brawl right out of an action-exploitation movie and you get a rough idea what you’re in for. The film tells the story of Colonel Kane, who is assigned to supervise the patients at a mental hospital for AWOL soldiers. The biggest enigma in the roster of patients is astronaut Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson), who had a nervous breakdown and as a result, botched a moon-landing mission.

What keeps the movie from coming together as a coherent whole ends up making it one of the most fascinatingly strange pieces of filmmaking. The performances are outstanding all around, with Ed Flanders in particular getting some emotionally powerful material. The loopy editing choices (scenes often begin with multiple odd establishing shots), creepy musical score, and crazy dialogue (Wilson shouts “The man in the moon tried to fuck my sister!” when Kane asks why he abandoned ship during his space mission) all seem to be pulling the film in opposite directions. The biggest flaw comes in that some of the Blake Edwards-esque gags miss rather than hit, and the less said about Robert Loggia in blackface, the better.

It’s fitting that a movie this strange and convoluted has a production and release history to match. Much of the production budget was put up by Pepsi Co. Pepsi had a plant in then-communist-run Hungary, but found it couldn’t move money out of the country as the US policy at the time was to not engage in business with communist countries. William Peter Blatty got wind of this, decided to film his movie in Hungary, and asked Pepsi to put up a chunk of the production costs for this film. Pepsi could spend the money any way it pleased so long as it stayed in Hungary. Stacey Keach was hired only a few weeks before filming began, replacing Nicol Williamson, and Scott Wilson was recast from a minor supporting role to playing Cutshaw shortly into production, replacing Michael Moriarty.

NINTH had a national run in 1980, where it was titled TWINKLE TWINKLE KILLER KANE, then vanished for a few years. From the mid-80s on, it had several home video iterations, mostly under the title of THE NINTH CONFIGURATION. Blatty recut the film several times, changing a significant part of the ending in some versions, and varying amounts of footage was added or removed.

The most recent release before this one of NINTH was a DVD released by Warner Home Video in 2002, itself an exact copy of a UK disc from 2000 pressed by Blue Dolphin Films. It sported an abysmally bad transfer, but did contain what Blatty called his final director’s cut, which was about 10 minutes longer than the KILLER KANE version seen in US theaters in 1980. To make up for the transfer, there were numerous supplements, including a plethora of deleted scenes including the aforementioned altered ending, an introduction by critic Mark Kermode, and an audio commentary by Blatty moderated by Kermode. Thankfully, all the supplements from the older DVD are included with this new Blu-Ray, but not too surprisingly given this film’s history, there’s nothing new.

Transfer-wise this is by far the best THE NINTH CONFIGURATION has ever looked on home video, and is a vast improvement over the old Warner/Blue Dolphin DVD. The film has a very soft, grainy look to it, which is retained quite well on the Blu-Ray, and there’s a bit of damage here and there. It’s not the quality of say, a Cinerama disc, but it gets the job done, and the movie looks the way it’s supposed to look. The audio is disappointingly only in mono. The film was released with a stereo mix initially, and there were even 70mm prints made with six-channel sound. Given how many times the film has been recut, it’s not terribly surprising that only a reduced sound mix survives.

Overall, this release is a godsend to the small cult following that’s gathered around this film and a lot of Blatty’s work in general. NINTH isn’t what you’d call a great film or a classic, but it is aggressively strange and unique. There’s little else out there like it, and those who are curious should definitely check it out.

Share This Article: Digg it | del.icio.us | Google | StumbleUpon | Technorati

Leave a Comment

(Comments are moderated and will be approved at FIR's discretion, please allow time to be displayed)