THE DVD SHELF: "Perfect Understanding," Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last!," Political Thriller "House of Cards" and "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"

By Steven Suskin
June 30, 2013

This month's column looks at the obscure talkie "Perfect Understanding," with Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier; Harold Lloyd's silent classic "Safety Last!"; Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards" and a complete box set of the early '60s sitcom, "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis."

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Among the stellar names on the list of silent screen stars who saw their careers collapse, with the arrival of talking pictures, is Gloria Swanson. Her first talkie, "The Trespasser" (1929), was a success; this was initially made as a silent, and quickly refilmed in a sound version. She tried a second talkie in 1930 and another in 1931, and both were failures. Swanson, her fame nevertheless undiminished, went to England in 1933 to star in — and produce — "Perfect Understanding" [Cohen]. This one quickly disappeared, and after one more attempt in 1934 the star drifted into celluloid oblivion. Swanson never quite disappeared, but her screen stardom was long past when in 1950 she was unexpectedly "ready for her close-up" in Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard."

The all-but-unseen "Perfect Understanding" now surprisingly turns up from the new Cohen Film Collection. It is at once interesting, watchable and not very good. Here we have one of those "sophisticated marital" comedies, only it is not very sophisticated. Woman and man, not wishing to become like their unhappily married friends, promise each other that their marriage will be based on a "perfect understanding" of trust and honesty. She leaves him alone in Cannes during their extended honeymoon — she trusts him so much, you see — which leaves him unable to resist the advances of an ex-mistress. Back in London, he confesses. She goes off with another man (although not actually); but he thinks the worst — especially when she turns out to be pregnant. They file for divorce, but during the trial he discovers the truth. They kiss, make up, and, while the lawyers are fighting it out, tip-toe away like Elyot and Amanda in Noël Coward's 1930 comedy Private Lives.

The Private Lives connection is real, as it happens; Swanson's husband was played by stage star but screen newcomer Laurence Olivier, who had been featured in the original London and New York productions of the Coward play. Swanson and Olivier make a strange couple of "young" lovers; he was a more or less suitable 26, but she was 34 — and had been a celebrity since he was 14. (While their roles are equivalent and they share star billing on the DVD release, Swanson gets sole star billing on the film itself. Olivier, in fact, isn't even billed; his name appears only on the cast list.) The script was written by Michael Powell, long before he got around to those "Red Shoes."

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The couple's lack of chemistry makes the film odd, indeed. On the other hand, "Perfect Understanding" serves as a welcome opportunity to see Olivier in his mid-20s, which carries built-in interest for some viewers. For reasons unknown, Cohen adds two Mack Sennett-produced 1933 shorts starring Walter Catlett, "Husband's Reunion" and "Dream Stuff." These are perfect for all the Walter Catlett fans out there. Both of you, if that many.

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Harold Lloyd was one of the three great cinema clowns of the pre-sound era, the other two being Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton. While Chaplin and Keaton were eccentrics, Lloyd's onscreen character was that of a normal, energetic, go-getter of an average everyday guy. Like Chaplin and Keaton, though, he was an exacting filmmaker who went to enormous lengths to make things look perfect.

Take "Safety Last!," which Criterion has just given us in a crisp and clean new Blu-ray. This was one of Lloyd's best and most popular efforts. Harold, a low-level clerk in a department store, devises a promotional scheme in which his roommate, who is adept at climbing walls, will scamper up all twelve stories of the building, drawing crowds to the store and earning Harold enough of a bonus to marry his girl. (Harold, in fact, married the girl — Mildred Davis — after the end of filming.) Inevitably, the friend is detained by the police at the last minute, which leaves Harold, who is not adept at climbing walls, forced to do so. And he does, in a brilliant extended sequence which takes up a good portion of the film and easily explains just why this was a smash hit in 1923.

The image of Harold hanging from the arms of a clock high atop downtown Los Angeles remains iconic. One of the Criterion special features explains how Harold's death-defying climb was done in those pre-special effect days. Other features include audio commentary; two alternate musical scores; the 1989 documentary "Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius"; and three restored Lloyd shorts, "Take a Chance," "Young Mr. Jazz" and "His Royal Slyness."

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David Fincher and Beau Willimon's political thriller House of Cards made an auspicious debut when it premiered — thirteen episodes, all at once — on Netflix back in February. It featured greed, sex, corruption and Congress — a tantalizing mix — with Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright topping the cast. For those who prefer watching their own DVDs rather than streaming, Sony has now given us the first season on four discs. Either streamed or in a box, "House of Cards" is compellingly watchable.

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Another intriguing box set that has recently turned up is The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis [Shout Factory]. Yes, before Doogie there was Dobie, a small-town teenager trying to find high school love while keeping one foot ahead of parents and teachers. Created by humorist Max Shulman, based on his 1951 collection of short stories, Dobie (it rhymes with Toby) hit the airwaves in 1959 and ran four seasons. The set includes all 147 episodes; those were the days when new episodes aired 36 or so weeks a year. I only managed to look at 8 of them, though.

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Yes, "Dobie Gillis," starring Dwayne Hickman, includes a lot of quaint, small-town humor. But the show has something of an edge, and a sly one at that. To begin with, the episodes (in the first season, anyway) begin and end with Dobie in the park in front of a statue of Rodin's Thinker; Hickman sits there, brow wrinkled, mimicking the statue's pose. Funny, and clever. Dobie's loyal friend and confidant is Maynard G. Krebs, a teenaged beatnik who is indeed very beat and pretty much always amusing. (Taking a cue from Maynard, the typical sitcom background music often flies off into wild jazz licks.) So the series, despite its family trappings, never loses its sense of satire.

Current-day viewers are likely to do a double-take every time Maynard comes onscreen — at least initially — because Maynard is Gilligan. That's right, this off-kilter, jazz-obsessed, unconventional thinker is Bob Denver, who after the series ended got himself shipwrecked on a desert island on CBS. Hickman's wide-eyed innocence (masking his innocent lust for teenage girls) is perfectly matched by Denver's laid-back Maynard, who actually contributed a catchphrase ("You rang?") to the vernacular.

The four seasons spread across 21 DVDs contain numerous surprises. High among them is Dobie's enemy during the first season, the handsome, wealthy and conceited Milton Armitage. Just who is that ultra-handsome, ultra-suave, ultra-snarky jerk? Warren Beatty, that's who. (In the episode "Dobie Gillis, Boy Actor," Beatty does a very funny Brando-as-Stanley-Kowalski.) Also prominent is Tuesday Weld, as the money-grasping vamp Thalia Menninger, along with a host of now-familiar faces — plus many now-forgotten faces. Bonuses include sample episodes from "Love That Bob!" — the 1955-59 Bob Cummings sitcom that featured Hickman — and the early-50s "Stu Erwin Show," which featured Dobie's love interest Sheila James as a preteen).

(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 can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)