"Garbo talks!" the ads proclaimed, upon the star's 1930 talking picture debut in Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie." "Garbo laughs!" they exclaimed, when she turned to "Ninotchka" in 1939. In both cases, the exclamation marks seem merited; "Ninotchka," especially, presents a delectable Garbo and remains sterling entertainment. But times change, tastes change, and the world can change mighty fast. Two years later, M-G-M brought back Garbo with her "Nintochka" leading man, Melvyn Douglas, in Two-Faced Woman [Warner Archive]. "Go gay with Garbo!" says the ad campaign. Hmmm.
Here was a '30s-style screwball comedy, but 1941 was no time for screwball comedy; the deco Park Ave. trappings — which never did look all too realistic in the midst of the Depression — must have seemed jaw-droppingly inapt when the film was unspooled. What's more, Garbo gives what you might call a Carole Lombard performance and looks mighty uncomfortable in the process. Game, yes; but so uncomfortable that you can understand how the 35-year-old legend might have taken one look at "Two-Faced Woman," thought "I want to be alone," and instantly decided to return before the camera nevermore.
Which is not to say that the film, a new release in Warner's Archive Collection, is not worth a look. Garbo and Douglas, who did so very well in "Ninotchka," remain charming and talented but they can't budge this material. Of course, they don't have director Ernst Lubitsch and screenwriter Billy Wilder here; M-G-M gave them George Cukor and the screenwriting team of S.N. Behrman, Salka Viertel and George Oppenheimer (who I would guess didn't collaborate, exactly).
The story is about a sophisticated New York magazine editor (Melvyn) who — on a ski trip out West — falls (most literally) for a Swedish ski instructor (Greta). When his boss whisks him to New York, Garbo — masquerading as her wild twin sister — flies East to win him back. The humor of the thing, in theory, is in seeing Garbo with her hair down; they even put her in an evening gown she is literally falling out of. And she dances, too, a big Latin-influenced nightclub number staged by Bob Alton (just back from choreographing the Broadway premiere of Pal Joey). Along with the stars and that dance number, there is some ridiculous ski footage. Most interesting to me, anyway, is the chance to see Ruth Gordon at the beginning of her screen career. (She was 44 already, but even so.) Gordon had made two films the year before, but in period pieces; here is Gordon as she must have looked during her days as a top Broadway star. She plays Douglas' secretary, and holds her own against Garbo. And Garbo fans take note: Warner Archive has released two more of her films, "Romance" and "Torrent."
Warner Archive gives us yet another intriguing item which aimed to replicate an earlier hit. Vincente Minnelli's 1952 "The Bad and the Beautiful," starring Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas, was a big M-G-M hit which took a handful of Oscars. Ten years later, Minnelli reunited with Douglas and screenwriter Charles Schnee (who won one of them "B&B" Oscars) for 2 Weeks in Another Town [Warner Archive]. This "from the Great Best-seller by Irwin Shaw," as it said in the ads; shot on location in Rome, although nowhere near as vibrantly as in William Wyler's "Roman Holiday"; and featuring Minnelli's penchant for design (in Cinemascope and Metrocolor). And oh, yes; Minnelli, Schnee, and producer John Houseman manage to incorporate footage from "The Bad and the Beautiful."
The film is about a formerly great Hollywood star, just out of the loony bin; a maniacal but washed up director, played by Edward G. Robinson; and an out-of-control ex-wife in the guise of Cyd Charisse, who gives a pretty strange performance. Hidden away in the wild Roman party scene at the end is an 18-year-old singer on the bandstand, playing the role of the Chanteuse. Look close: Leslie Uggams.
All right. What musical comedy star came to Broadway directly from a film during which, in the harrowing opening sequence, she appears as a prostitute violently — but I mean violently — beating her pimp to a pulp with a telephone receiver, in the course of which her wig flies off revealing her to be altogether bald? Constance Towers, of course, and if you didn't know this — well, I didn't, either. The Naked Kiss [Criterion] is the film, from controversial director Samuel Fuller. A low-budget, noirish nightmare of a film from 1964 — the ads promised the "shock and shame story of a night girl!" — Fuller follows his heroine to small-town U.S.A., where she ditches her demons and takes up residence at a hospital for underprivileged handicapped children until yet another scandal intrudes. Dear Connie — who the following year starred in the Wright & Forrest operetta Anya, returned to Broadway in 1971 as the heroine of the even more ill-fated musicalization of "Exodus," Ari, and finally hit it big opposite Yul Brynner in the successful 1977 revival of The King and I — has not one but three violent scenes where she beats her tormentors to pulp. Sweet!
Also on hand is Patsy Kelly, of all people. If "The Naked Kiss" was seen as a throwaway exploitation film at the time, Mr. Fuller has achieved the reputation of a visionary who can be said to have set the path for the likes of Scorsese and Tarantino. So much so that Criterion has seen fit to give Blu-ray treatment to not only "The Naked Kiss" but Fuller's 1963 "Shock Corridor," which takes place in a mental asylum and also features Ms. Towers — who sits for interviews on both DVDs. And yes, she mentions Anya and her co-star in the tuner, Lillian Gish.
James L. Brooks' 1987 film Broadcast News [Criterion] is marked by fine writing and direction (by Brooks, who also produced) and strong performances by the three stars. William Hurt is appealing as a very personable but not-very-bright TV journalist; Albert Brooks is even better as a brilliant but not very personable reporter who gets shoved aside by the pretty face of Hurt; and Holly Hunter is riveting as an expert news producer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The combination of Hurt, Brooks, Hunter and James Brooks makes "Broadcast News" a delight to watch. The film bemoans the depths to which television journalism has sunk. Circa 1987, that is; broadcast news has since descended into another world altogether.
Brooks knows of what he writes; he started his career scripting television news at CBS in New York in the final days of Edward R. Murrow. Then on to sitcom land, where he was one of the creators of two newsroom sitcoms, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant." As well as a few little items like "Taxi" and "The Simpsons." (He also created the wickedly funny "The Critic," which was too good for the average TV viewer.) His films include "Terms of Endearment," "As Good As It Gets," and "The Simpsons Movie." Which is to say, the fellow has a knack for incisive comedy with ideas contained within. The Criterion release was "supervised and approved" by Brooks, and looks fine on Blu-ray. Special features include commentary by Brooks and editor Richard Marks; a documentary on Brooks' career featuring Marilu Henner and Julie Kavner; an interview with Susan Zirinsky, a CBS news producer who was a model for the Hunter character — and an associate producer of the film; and a featurette containing on-set interviews with the three stars. Oh, and there are deleted scenes plus an improvised and not exactly finished alternate ending in which girl finally gets boy as they ride off into the sunset, or rather in a DC cab.
There is also a little bonus within the film itself. Midway through, two scraggly young songwriters break into the newsroom to audition a newscast theme. Should the short, bearded fellow with wild hair, green shirt and flowered tie look familiar, there's a reason; it's Marc Shaiman, 15 years before Hairspray.
Little need be said about our final film this month, which is the most important of the group: Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple [Warner]. Spielberg went out on something of a limb at the time, which was 1985; after "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T," and two Indiana Jones epics, his enthusiastic fan base was not expecting this searing and serious epic. Spielberg demonstrated that he was more than just a brilliant director of adventure films, paving the way for what was to come.
"The Color Purple," adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, embraced, enthused and enthralled viewers. It also introduced them to two of the more astounding and influential performers who — at the time — seemed unlikely candidates for overnight superstardom and instant celebrity. In a two-and-a-half hour film filled with fine performances, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey are equally riveting.
Warner has encased the Blu-ray in a photo-filled digibook. Bonus features include "Conversations with the Ancestors: The Color Purple from Book to Screen"; "A Collaboration of Spirits: Casting and Acting The Color Purple"; "Cultivating a Classic: The Making of The Color Purple"; and "The Color Purple: The Musical." The latter of which was, alas, ineffective in comparison with "The Color Purple" the Film.
(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 can be reached at email@example.com.)
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