THE DVD SHELF: The Grandly Theatrical "A Double Life," Plus "A New Leaf," "E.T.," "Annie" and "The Carol Burnett Show"

By Steven Suskin
September 30, 2012

This month, we watch the Othello-based backstage film noir "A Double Life"; Elaine May's "A New Leaf"; Steven Spielberg's classic "E.T."; highlights from "The Carol Burnett Show"; and John Huston's version of the Broadway musical Annie.



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The climax of Shakespeare's Othello, with the Moor strangling fair Desdemona with a kiss, presents passion unrestrained. In the hands of an excellent and strong actor — like Paul Robeson, who stunned Broadway squeezing the life out of Uta Hagen during the 1943-44 season — it is easy for the mind to momentarily confuse the performer with the character.

Imagine, though, what could happen in the hands of a mighty actor who is heading for a severe breakdown; and whose reason, offstage, is clouded by raging jealousy? The Kanins — Garson and his wife Ruth Gordon — seem to have imagined just that, perhaps instigated by Robeson's performance. In any case, they soon thereafter devised the 1947 A Double Life [Olive], a powerful mixture of Shakespeare and insanity set in the glamorous world of the theatre of yesteryear.

The Kanins — writing the screenplay and apparently coproducing the film with Gar's brother, Michael — came upon the canny idea of casting not a stage actor but old-time movie star Ronald Colman. Colman had been in Hollywood for a quarter century, making such classics as "A Tale of Two Cities," "The Prisoner of Zenda" and "Lost Horizon." But it took playing Anthony John — the stage star who undertakes Othello in "A Double Life" — that finally won him his Oscar.

The result is a fascinating psychological film noir filled with Shakespeare and stage dust. Colman has the Swedish actress Signe Hasso as ex-wife and stage partner; in this case, she falls under his grip when she plays his Desdemona. Edmond O'Brien is a Broadway press agent and stand-in for Cassio; he won his own Oscar seven years later, as another press agent in "The Barefoot Contessa." Most startling of the supporting cast is Shelley Winters, as a slatternly blonde waitress who picks up Colman and pays the ultimate price. She practically sizzles in a manner that might shock those who are only familiar with the older Shelley.

"A Double Life" was directed by George Cukor, famous for his work with Katherine Hepburn and a series of major hits for M-G-M (including "Dinner at Eight," "Camille" and "The Philadelphia Story"). Cukor began his career on the stage; for a time he ran a stock company in Rochester, NY. He is said to have introduced Kanin and Gordon, back in 1939. "A Double Life" would be the first of a string of collaborations with them (including "Born Yesterday" and "Adam's Rib").

Ronald Colman in "A Double Life"
1947 Universal

The stage connection was strong. Ruth started her career in 1915 at the fabled old Empire, supporting the great Maude Adams in Peter Pan. The considerably younger Kanin began in 1935, as assistant to George Abbott on such farce hits as Three Men on a Horse and Boy Meets Girl. They combined to make "A Double Life" thoroughly informed by the Broadway theatre; this is a backstage theatre story taking place in the true Broadway world. And the center of that world is — yes — the Empire, the preeminent Broadway playhouse for more than 60 years. Located on the east side of Broadway, just below 40th Street, the house was — with much sorrow from the community — demolished in 1953.

The Kanins and Cukor not only lace their film with shots of the Empire; they took over the house during the summer of 1947 and shot much of the film in and around the theatre, at a time when such filming on location was a rarity. We have exterior shots of the Empire, both the front and (apparently) the stage door entrance. Scenes are shot in the main box office lobby; the inner entrance lobby, with portraits of Empire stars on the walls; and at the rear of the orchestra, with glass panels separating the standees from the rear row of seats. There are scenes onstage, both bare-stage rehearsals (which show the offstage corridors leading to the dressing rooms) and full performance scenes shot from the front and from the wings. What's more, we get a series of scenes of the packed house, including fascinating upstage shots of Colman's Othello battling Hasso's Desdemona with audience members in the boxes as background. There are even scenes that appear to use the second floor office which opens out onto the roof of the marquee, at the time the shabby domain of veteran press agent Richard Maney.

So there is pure theatre in the blood of "A Double Life." Other Broadway locations include a scene beneath the marquee of the long-running The Voice of the Turtle at the Morosco, and another where Colman bounds into the Lyceum and up the lobby steps to the elevator leading to what are now the Shubert Archives. The Kanins' love of Broadway lore extends even to the casting. The stage manager in the final scenes at the Empire is John Drew Colt, son of Ethel Barrymore and great-nephew of the legendary John Drew, who starred in so many early plays at the Empire.

The future is represented as well. How does a budding playwright/screenwriter from the Bronx make ends meet eight years before he wins his first of three Oscars? By picking up extra work wherever he can. Check out Paddy Chayefsky as the news photographer sitting on the top stair outside the crime scene.

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Cover art for "A New Leaf"

Olive Films also gives us Elaine May's cockeyed 1971 comedy, A New Leaf. Writer-director May combines screwball with the sardonically macabre in this relatively obscure film that is deserving of our attention. Here is Walter Matthau, as a trust fund playboy whose trust fund dries up. What to do? Grit your teeth and marry some hapless heiress you can bump off on the honeymoon. Walter finds his perfect match in Elaine May, an exceedingly clumsy and exceedingly rich botanist. (May names her characters Henry and Henrietta, naturally enough.) Things wind up pretty much as you might expect.

What you don't expect is the level of humor, which starts high and never flags. Matthau, of course, was born to play such roles; May, formerly of the standup team Nichols and May, is exceedingly dry as Walter's better half. May — as director — has filled out the film with inordinately eccentric performances from her supporting cast. George Rose (as Henry's valet) and Jack Weston (as Henrietta's accountant) are both simultaneously impossible and perfect. Part of the fun of "A New Leaf" is watching favorite old character comedians like Rose, Weston, Jimmy Coco, William Redfield, Doris Roberts and more.

The film was famously troubled: May went way over schedule and way over budget; Paramount's Robert Evans seized the negative and trimmed it by more than an hour, with lawsuits and countersuits; and the film opened to strong reviews but weak business. Which doesn't much matter, here and now. Turn over "A New Leaf," slide it into your Blu-ray or DVD player, and laugh.

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Cover art for "E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial"

Director Steven Spielberg revolutionized the film business in 1975 with "Jaws," which Universal recently spruced up and released on Blu-ray. He followed this with box office hits "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981). His 1982 effort was his best yet, and remains near the top of his personal list: E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial [Universal], which now comes to us digitally remastered on Blu-ray in what they call an "Anniversary Edition." (This is the 30th Anniversary, but who's counting?)

Spielberg managed to wed science fiction with a heartwarming family drama, populating his tale with a couple of incredibly cute kids (played by incredibly canny young actors, including the seven-year-old Drew Barrymore) and a title character who was simultaneously cute and grotesque. "E. T." turned out to be a perfect tale for the times — which were the early Reagan years — and it remains highly effective.

The Blu-ray package is accompanied by copies on DVD, digital and Ultraviolet. New bonus features include "Steven Spielberg & 'E. T.'," with the director talking about the making of the film and how it has impacted his career; and "The E. T. Journals," with behind-the-scenes footage from the set. Also included are various bonuses from the 20th Anniversary DVD set.

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Cover art for "The Carol Burnett Show — Carol's Favorites"

For 11 seasons, from 1967 to 1978, "CBS" had a double meaning: Columbia Broadcast System and The Carol Burnett Show. Every week, millions of fans stopped by to see what Carol and her team of fellow-buffoons — headed by Harvey Korman, Vicki Lawrence, Lyle Waggoner and Tim Conway — might come up with.

Time Life has culled the 278 episodes for laughter, with input from the star, and given Carol's fans something to cheer about. Several things to cheer about, really. The object in hand is The Carol Burnett Show — Carol's Favorites, 18-plus hours' worth on six DVDs. That is to say, 16 complete episodes. Carol's favorites, we suppose. These include the iconic "Went with the Wind," Burnett's parody of "Gone with the Wind" (and far funnier); sketches galore; and guest stars including Steve Martin, Carl Reiner, Betty White, Joan Rivers, Shirley MacLaine and The Jackson 5. Bonus features include a cast reunion with Carol, Vicki, Tim and Lyle; an interview with Harvey and Tim; the featurette "I Want to Push That Button. . . The History of the Carol Burnett Show"; and the 1962 "Supergirl" sketch from "The Garry Moore Show," in which fledgling comedienne Carol introduced her Tarzan yell to TV audiences.

The Carol Collection is available in three other configurations — which alas, don't have different titles. Besides the six-DVD edition (with a goldish/reddish cover), there is a two-disc edition (with a green cover), which contains "7 all-time classic episodes chosen by Carol Burnett"); and a one-disc edition with "Went with the Wind" and classic sketches. And for the true Burnett fan, we have The Carol Burnett Show Ultimate Collection. Not everything, naturally; just 50 episodes, plus more than 20 hours of bonus features and a 20-page "memory book."

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Cover art for "Annie"

With the 35th Anniversary production of Annie fast approaching previews at the Palace, this seems like an opportune moment for Columbia's 30th Anniversary release of John Huston's 1982 film version of Annie. This was a somewhat different Annie, yes; and it met a decidedly uneven reception. But to those generations of "little girls" — as Miss Hannigan calls 'em, gritting her teeth — this is the Annie they remember. The passage of years, and the gazillions of TV and VHS and DVD viewings by young and old alike, allow the cinematic "Annie" to stand on her own.

The film had the sort of stars Broadway couldn't hope to afford, namely Albert Finney as Warbucks and Carol Burnett as Hannigan. The featured players include always interesting performers like Bernadette Peters, Ann Reinking, Tim Curry and Geoffrey Holder. Annie is played by young Aileen Quinn, who did not springboard to enduring fame. But she will, always, be Annie.

The Blu-ray bonus features include a "sing-along edition" for viewers who wish to, well, sing along. A perfect excuse for those who can't wait to start, once more, warbling "Tomorrow." And please: don't try doing this at the Palace.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series 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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