THE DVD SHELF: "All About Eve," "An Affair to Remember," Gielgud's "Ages of Man," The Norman Conquests, "Glee"

News   THE DVD SHELF: "All About Eve," "An Affair to Remember," Gielgud's "Ages of Man," The Norman Conquests, "Glee"
 
We screen the classics "All About Eve" and "An Affair to Remember"; John Gielgud's Shakespearean recital series; Alan Ayckbourn's Norman trilogy; Woody Allen's latest; and "Glee: Season Two Volume One."

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 backstage classic All About Eve [Fox] retains its powers in the new Blu-ray release. This is one of those films that, as they say, needs no introduction; not to my readership, it doesn't. It has been years since I've watched Margo & Eve and the rest; on this viewing I was especially impressed with the performances of George Sanders as the critic Addison DeWitt, especially in the scene in which he unmasks and defeats the seemingly unstoppable Eve Harrington; Thelma Ritter, as Margo's loyal but caustic dresser Birdie; and, surprisingly enough, Marilyn Monroe as Miss Casswell, the Copacabana-trained starlet. The as-yet-unknown Monroe gives a witty and knowing comic performance. One wonders just how much she was noticed at the time; Twentieth Century Fox was impelled to sign her to a long-term contract, but could they have had any idea what they were getting?

Bette Davis and Anne Baxter are there too, of course, as is Celeste Holm. Celeste, in a decidedly supporting role, shared star billing above the title with Davis and Baxter; I suppose this was because she walked in with a 1947 Oscar and a likely shot at the 1949 award, which she didn't ultimately win, for "Come to the Stable." Holm got a third nomination for "All About Eve" — three in four years! For "Eve," she was competing in the supporting category against Ritter; Davis and Baxter battled each other for Best Actress. All four lost, to actresses recreating their roles in two of Broadway's longest-running comedies of the 1940s: Judy Holliday in "Born Yesterday" and Josephine Hull in "Harvey." Sanders won the supporting actor Oscar, though; Mankiewicz won two, as director and author, with the film taking the Best Picture nod as well.

Also on hand, as the dinner speaker in the opening and closing sequences, is the very very very old Walter Hampden (back in the days when 70 was still considered to be very very very old). Hampden was one of the last, and one of the most durable, actor-managers of the American stage; he was best known, perhaps, as the finest American "Cyrano" — at least until Jose Ferrer came along with his version in 1946. Hampden capped his Broadway career in 1953 as Deputy-Governor Danforth in Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." Here he gives a speech awarding Eve Harrington with the Sarah Siddons Award.

This Sarah Siddons section might be confusing to some viewers; I mean, what are Eve and Margo and everyone doing in Chicago? It turns out that Mankiewicz simply made up the Sarah Siddons Award, naming it after the 18th-century tragedienne. Two years after the film opened, some Chicago society folk decided to adopt the award and have been giving it ever since. (In one of the several Blu-ray bonuses, an official from the Sarah Siddons Society tells how they gave the award in 1973 to Bette Davis herself — who was furious to find that they had brought in Anne Baxter as a surprise speaker!) Theatre fans who like to scour movies for footage of old-time Broadway will be rewarded with a view — fleeting, but authentic — of the old Klaw Theatre. As in Klaw & Erlanger, the showmen whose grasping syndicate was overtaken by the Shuberts. The Erlanger is now called the St. James. Marc Klaw's house was on the plot just west of the Imperial, where there now sits a parking lot that many of us use as a shortcut between 45th and 46th. "All About Eve" used the Golden as an exterior location. (The interiors were shot not in New York but at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. They also visit the Shubert in New Haven.) There are two 45th Street sequences — one night, one day — in which we can glimpse the marquees for Lost in the Stars at the Music Box, Miss Liberty (with, curiously enough, "dances by Jerome Robbins" in electric lights) at the Imperial, and the Maurice Evans production of The Devil's Disciple at the Royale. Which dates the location shooting to a six-week window centering on March 1950. The house directly across the street from the Golden — you can make out its then-name, "Columbia Radio Theatre" on the Blu-ray — is the former Klaw.

Fox has given similar treatment to another 1950s favorite with a similarly enduring fanbase, An Affair to Remember. Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr engage in a shipboard romance, agreeing to meet again six months later atop the Empire State Building. Ah, but tragedy intervenes. Will Nickie (Cary) and Terry (Deborah) meet again? Will true love triumph? This is indeed an affair to remember. Leo McCarey, the expert comedy director who won Oscars for "The Awful Truth" and "Going My Way," first devised the story in 1939 as "Love Affair." Starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, the film earned seven Oscar nominations but took none; something to do with that year's competition, which included "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz." The first remake, "An Affair to Remember," was an even bigger hit in 1957; it ranks high on all those lists of favorite romantic movies. (The AFI has it at No. 5 on the great love stories list). McCarey's plot served as inspiration for "Sleepless in Seattle" in 1993; the following year came a second remake of "Love Affair," this one reverting to the original title and starring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Katharine Hepburn.

But the 1957 version is the finest, a true romance in the best old-fashioned sense. Bonuses include audio commentary by Marni Nixon, who dubbed Ms. Kerr's singing (as she had the year before on "The King and I").

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John Gielgud was in something of a crisis mode in the mid-1950s. The world-famous actor, already knighted, was publicly humiliated when he was arrested on a morals charge in 1953. Along came Mr. Beckett's Godot followed by all those Angry Young Men playwrights with vibrant contemporary plays in which Gielgud was out of his element. (Larry Olivier could earn raves in John Osborne's The Entertainer, but Gielgud apparently thought himself too genteel for that sort of thing.) What to do? His great-aunt, the legendary Ellen Terry, had in her declining years devised a one-woman lecture program made up of Shakespeare's Heroines; why shouldn't Sir John try something of the sort? Ages of Man is what he called it, Gielgud alone onstage in modern dress declaiming speeches from the Bard. Theatrical magic it was, proving to be a phenomenal success. Gielgud first performed the piece in 1957, happily taking it 'round the world. He visited the 46th Street Theatre in 1959 — between New Girl in Town and Redhead — and picked up a special Tony Award in the process, returning in 1963 for an additional week at the Lyceum. He also won a Grammy Award for a recording of the show.

Ages of Man was televised in 1966, receiving an Emmy; producer David Susskind gladly accepted it, berating the voters in his speech for overlooking Gielgud in the acting category. The program was telecast in two one-hour segments, on consecutive Sundays in January. The televised Ages of Man [E-One] has now been issued on DVD as part of the invaluable string of programs being rescued under the sponsorship of "The Archive of American Television Presents." Ages of Man is, needless to say, thoroughly fascinating; Gielgud's instant transitions from one speech to another are astounding. But then, that's precisely what you would expect, isn't it? That said, the visual quality is poor, especially the first part; Gielgud often looks like he is surrounded by a phosphorescent glow. But the magic is in the words, and Gielgud delivers Shakespeare in Ages of Man.

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Alan Ayckbourn's trilogy The Norman Conquests opened in Scarborough in 1973 and moved to London in 1974, where it rocked the West End with hilarity. This boded well for the Broadway production, which premiered in California and moved into the Morosco on Dec. 7, 1975. Where it was decidedly non-hilarious, so much so that not enough patrons saw the need to go back and buy tickets for the other two plays. Thus, a disappointing run of only six months (which is to say, two months-per-play). And no wonder. Carole Shelley, as Norman's sight-challenged wife, was hysterically good; Ken Howard, too, was extremely droll as Tom-the-dull-veterinarian. But Barry Nelson and Estelle Parsons, fine comic actors both, were out of place as the older couple; and Richard Benjamin (as Norman) and his wife Paula Prentiss (as Annie) were so weak as to leave the plays looking haphazard.

New York playgoers who appreciated the puzzle put together by Mr. Ayckbourn — despite the production itself — were rewarded when the 1977 television version of The Norman Conquests [Acorn] was broadcast here on Public Television. With an authentic British cast speaking authentic British accents and acting authentically British — and without the actor-to-actor conflicts which apparently helped scuttle the U.S. production — "The Norman Conquests" was a delectable six-hour delight.

The TV "Norman" has now been released here on DVD, and about time, too. Yes, Matthew Warchus' revival of The Norman Conquests played at Circle in the Square in the spring of 2009, and it was altogether lovely. But you can't see that production now, today; and you can simply pop the DVD in your disc player and sit back to enjoy Table Manners, Living Together and Round and Round the Garden. And having purchased the trilogy and watched it, you can then go back and watch Table Manners over again; the best gags really do work on three levels. What's more, you get a fine bunch of actors. Penelope Keith, the one holdover from the original West End cast, is perhaps the funniest; she won the BAFTA Best Actress Award for this, and no wonder. Tom Conti, as Norman, went on directly to star in the London and Broadway productions of Whose Life Is It Anyway? Penelope Wilton (Annie), Richard Briers (Reg), Fiona Walker (Ruth) and David Troughton (Tom) round out the cast. And they all have their moments, quite a few of them.

"The Norman Conquests" comes from Acorn Media, who have recently provided us with hours and hours of enjoyable viewing with the multi-DVD sets of the Stratfordian "Slings and Arrows" and Helen Mirren's "Prime Suspect." Now we get "Norman" — and Acorn has yet another landmark set coming up next month!

Woody Allen is at this point certainly entitled to make films as he sees fit, which he does in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger [Sony Pictures Classics]. This is yet another tale of a group of unhappy and maladjusted folk, as seems to be Mr. Allen's wont. Out-to-pasture Anthony Hopkins has left his wife Gemma Jones, armed with a box of prescription Viagra. Jones finds herself under the spell of fortune teller Pauline Collins; Hopkins, meanwhile, finds call girl Lucy Punch and quickly marries her. Hopkins and Jones' daughter Naomi Watts is unhappily married to unproductive novelist Josh Brolin, who is attracted to college student Freida Pinto (whom he spies in a window across the courtyard). Brolin steals a brilliant unpublished novel from an unknown writer-friend in a coma and steals Pinto from her fiancee, walking out on Watts who is attracted to her art dealer boss Antonio Banderas who instead has an affair with Anna Friel, an undiscovered artist discovered by Watts. Meanwhile, Jones hooks up with occult book dealer Roger Ashton-Griffiths. It's all very simple, really.

Mr. Allen sees fit to explode every character's existence and then end his film without resolving matters. Yes, I suppose that's the way things are in real life. But it doesn't make for a very satisfactory film-watching experience, not for me anyway.

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The "Glee" franchise has been so successful that the producers have discovered they can take their episodes to the home entertainment market not on a season-by-season basis but by the half-season. Are fans eager to buy ten episodes of "Glee" now and splurge for the full season later? The answer seems to be: absolutely. More than enough purchasers to make for a lucrative practice, at least. Glee: Season 2 Volume 1 [Fox] is here, and I suppose it is selling like proverbial hot cakes. (How fast do hot cakes sell, anyway?)

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)

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