THE DVD SHELF: A June Grab Bag With Montgomery Clift, George Clooney and More

This month we watch the 1955 television adaptation of Kurt Weill's One Touch of Venus, Douglas Sirk's '50s melodrama "All That Heaven Allows," the Howard Hawks western "Red River" and George Clooney's "The Monuments Men."

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The recent release of the complete, 2-CD studio cast recording of Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash's 1943 musical comedy One Touch of Venus (on Jay Records) has coincidentally been joined by the 1955 television production of One Touch of Venus [VAI]. Venus, the musical, has been rarely seen over the last half century; the telecast in question was adapted from one of the not-very-many major productions, by Dallas State Fair Musicals. That summer's production was telecast by Oldsmobile on NBC August 27, 1955.

Starring as Venus is not Mary Martin, who created the role on stage, but perhaps the closest to Mary they could find. Janet Blair had been a contract player at Columbia in the early 1940s, most memorably as Rosalind Russell's sister Eileen in My Sister Eileen. Her most prominent role, though, came in 1950 in Martin's role of Nellie Forbush in the first national company of South Pacific. Blair toured with the show for three years; apparently she was good enough, though not in a league with Martin.

As Venus, Blair is — I suppose — good enough though not in a league with Martin. The Dallas production and the TV adaptation were directed by George Schaefer and choreographed by Edmund Balin. Russell Nype (post- Call Me Madam) and George Gaynes (post- Wonderful Town) co-star as the barber and the aesthete. The cast includes Mort Marshall and Iggie Wolfington (pre- Music Man) as the supporting comic duo; Laurel Shelby as the featured comedienne; and William LeMassena, Arnie Freeman and Louis Nye in small roles.

If rough and rushed in the manner of live television circa 1955, this One Touch of Venus is certainly watchable. It gives a far better idea of the show than the 1948 motion picture version, which starred Ava Gardner and cut most of Weill's score. The 90-minute telecast includes all but four of the songs; only one of the cuts, I would say, is missed. Also included are abbreviated versions of the two big ballets, "Forty Minutes for Lunch" and "Venus in Ozone Heights." (Neither have the original de Mille choreography, and are rather basic aside from the music.) While the live-TV audio is primitive, it does sound like Weill's orchestrations are used; the composer died five years earlier, in 1950. Franz Allers conducted in Dallas, although the television chores were handled by Gino Smart. (Smart received his sole Broadway credit six months later, as vocal arranger of the Allers-conducted My Fair Lady.) What is revealed is a tuneful if slapdash musical comedy, with a rather creaky book from Nash and S.J. Perelman. (There is clearly some book adaptation, by Schaefer and John Gerstad.) The performances are okay, although Blair doesn't provide the magical spark that the show seems to need. The whole thing is okay, really, but in no way exceptional, which is what I think we'd find if someone bothered to revive the show today.

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Upper class (but considerate) widow in 1955 Connecticut falls in love with blue collar (but civilized) gardener, while the local gossips go wild. Such is the plot of Douglas Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows" [Criterion], a moist melodrama aimed for what was then termed the women's audience. Sirk, Universal and producer Ross Hunter had a major box office hit in 1954 by pairing Oscar-winner Jane Wyman and newcomer Rock Hudson in the older woman/younger man tearjerker "Magnificent Obsession," so they immediately set out to do it again. And did.

Unlike its predecessor, "All That Heaven Allows" has only one major accident and no deaths. Still, it is highly watchable. Sirk does all sorts of interesting — if over-the-top — things. Seat Wyman (the former Mrs. Ronald Reagan, by the way) at a piano, and the piano rack she gazes into will become a mirror, reflecting the set behind her. Let her sit in her daughter's room for an emotionally-wrenching scene, and the light refracted from the round window will bathe her in all the colors of the rainbow. And not subtly. Or just let the camera linger on Rock, perhaps; they were certainly grooming him as a heartthrob, in full and living color.

The colors are mighty lush in this new Criterion release, as is the Frank Skinner soundtrack (which borrows heavily from Brahms' First Symphony). Agnes Moorhead is around to join in the fun, too. While "All That Heaven Allows" is not the sort of film you're likely to take seriously, it does make an entertaining 90 minutes. And it does look pretty, even though the picturesque New England town seems to me to have been shot on the Pacific Coast.

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Also from Criterion comes Howard Hawks' "Red River". Hawks was a master of comedy, drama, the gangster genre and more (with films like "Scarface," "Bringing Up Baby," "To Have and Have Not" and "Sergeant York"). In 1948 he tried his hand at — why not? — a John Wayne western. "Red River" told the story of a cattle drive on the Chisholm Trail, with Wayne shepherding his charges from Texas along the Red River up to Abilene.

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Standing out — along with the sheer spectacle of all those cattle — is the psychological drama embodied by the relationship between the cattleman and a teenage orphan he adopts. The latter grows into Montgomery Clift, who made his film debut at 28 with two 1948 films ("Red River" and "The Search"). Clift was by then a seasoned stage professional; he reached Broadway at the age of 14, in the 1935 Cole Porter/Moss Hart musical Jubilee. (That was the "Begin the Beguine" musical, although Clift apparently didn't have any songs.) He appeared in a dozen Broadway shows before moving to Hollywood for "Red River." These included notable roles in Robert Sherwood's There Shall Be No Night (starring the Lunts), Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth and Lillian Hellman's The Searching Wind as well as an early Tennessee Williams flop. Clift makes an intriguing and arresting leading man; the neurotic traits of his later years aren't yet quite in evidence, but there is something that keeps you watching him closely. Watching him instead of John Wayne, as it happens. Also on hand is an entertaining Walter Brennan as Wayne's sidekick, driving the chow wagon, and an interesting John Ireland as a competitive companion to Clift.

Criterion gives us two alternate versions of the film — the full version and a slightly shorter cut preferred by Hawks; separate new interviews about the film with Peter Bogdanovich and Molly Haskell; audio from a 1972 conversation between Hawks and Bogdanovich; a 1949 radio adaptation of the film, starring Wayne; and even a new paperback edition of "Blazing Guns on the Chisholm Trail," the Borden Chase story upon which the film was based. Western writer Chase, it turns out, started out as Frank Fowler from Brooklyn.

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Twenty-odd years ago, while travelling from Bruges to Brussels, I jumped off the Eurail in Ghent to see the world-famous altarpiece. Jan van Eyck's twelve-panel "Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," which was finished in 1432, resides in Saint Bavo's Cathedral. It is in any number of ways a remarkable work of art — it ushered in a new era in painting — but I was struck by how obscured it was by a wall-sized protective covering. It was like looking at the thing through a Plexiglas box, with none of the sense — or smell — that you usually get when standing before a 500-year-old painting.

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This experience was forcefully brought back to me watching George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" [Sony], a World War II epic which centers on a mismatched team of seven art historians drafted to go to Germany and save the plundered Ghent Altarpiece from the Nazis. The poor painting gets hidden in a salt mine, and George and the boys find it just in time to save it. This sort of explains, I guess, why the Altarpiece is nowadays so carefully protected. "The Monuments Men," thus, had a hook which naturally grabbed my attention. Based on the book by Robert M. Edsel, it has a more-interesting-than-usual plot on which to hang the suspense, and a real-life one at that. Unfortunately, the writing is haphazard; the "odd couple" selection of sad sacks — Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, John Goodman and Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin (of "The Artist") — amuse and charm us despite the material they are handed. Clooney is the mastermind of the scheme; Matt Damon is there to represent the (relatively) younger generation; and Cate Blanchett plays the obligatory Frenchwoman who gets involved with Damon. Hugh Bonneville, of "Downton Abbey," is there too, although he seems to be working in another movie until he is bumped off by the bad guys.

(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 writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post). He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)