THE DVD SHELF: "Theatreland," Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole," Harold Lloyd's "The Freshman" and David O. Russell's "American Hustle"

This month we watch the British documentary "Theatreland," Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole," Harold Lloyd's "The Freshman" and David O. Russell's "American Hustle."

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Theatreland [Athena], Chris Terrill's eight-episode look at the day-to-day operation of the historic Theatre Royal Haymarket sounds promising in description and starts off strong. Filmed mostly during the run of Sean Mathias' 2009 production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot — which was remounted on Broadway this season with stars Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart — eight half-hour episodes turn out to be too many to maintain interest.

The first two episodes are especially fine. We see the Haymarket staff prepare for the arrival of Godot. (The Haymarket, as we learn, is an historic playhouse that has been operating on the site since 1821.) Dressing rooms are prepared, houseboards are hung, fixtures are upgraded, actors arrive, previews begin, opening night approaches. Director/producer Terrill gives us privileged glimpses of the world past the lobby; a familiar world to those of us who've spent years of our lives behind the curtain, but likely fascinating to playgoers.

The strictures of observing working actors and paying audiences, though, start to intrude. McKellen and Stewart — who are busy trying to find their characters in Godot — are game participants, allowing us to glimpse them in rehearsal hall and dressing room, and sometimes freely speaking to the cameraman. One suspects that access to the stars was limited, though, and there are only brief snippets of Godot itself.

What we do get is plenty of time with the non-show staff. Attention is focused on the house manager, a nice enough chap. (I've known plenty of house managers in my time, including a couple of my favorite people, but they'd be the first to suggest that there are more scintillating people in the theatre to talk to.) "Theatreland" sees fit to concentrate on several peripheral workers, building them into continuing characters. An eager young usherette, for example, who is brought on frequently for comedic color. We see her learning to tie her tie, we see her commanding the audience during a fire drill in a nice loud voice (she's an out-of-work actress, naturally) and we see her serving tea and biscuits to a VIP. (It's Maggie Smith, except we don't actually see Maggie, only hear her voice through a door. One of the problems of having a camera unnaturally intruding on real life.)  The house carpenter and his young assistant are a constant, continually fixing the hundred-year old seats, inspecting the roof, and in at least one scene appearing shirtless. (In my 40 years backstage at the theatre, I have never encountered anyone shirtless, except for actors.) And then there's the cheeky lass who blithely works away fixing the toilets in episode after episode. Yes, fixing the toilets. Every auditorium in London — and elsewhere — has toilets, but this is not exactly what we think of when we consider the magic of theatreland.

 

By the fourth installment, we are relegated to the ushers stalking through the house — with low-light photography and eerily spooky music — searching for a 19th-century ghost. The last four episodes apparently deal with the closing of Godot and the rehearsals of the next attraction, the Mathias production of Breakfast at Tiffany's starring Anna Friel. I, however, was done in by the manufactured-for-TV Haymarket ghostbusters.

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Billy Wilder (1906-2002), the Austrian-born film director/writer/producer, is best remembered for wry comedies like "Some Like It Hot" and "The Apartment." He arrived in Hollywood via Paris in 1933, absorbing the celebrated Lubitsch Touch while writing such films as "Ninotchka" (1939) before moving on to develop his own Wilder Touch. After an early directorial success with the droll "The Major and the Minor" (1942), he established himself with a series of efforts that were considerably darker than the comedies we associate with him. First came the classic "Double Indemnity" (1944), which set the standard for American film noir; the searing and altogether gripping study of alcoholism, "The Lost Weekend" (1945), for which he won the first two of his six Oscars; and that iconic Hollywood saga, "Sunset Boulevard" (1950).

And then came " Ace in the Hole" [Criterion], Wilder's darkest and most cynical film. Chuck Tatum ( Kirk Douglas) is a broken-down big-city reporter, exiled to Albuquerque. When a local man is trapped by a cave collapse, Tatum grabs hold of the story and turns it into front-page news. The rescue effort becomes a big carnival — the film was officially retitled "The Big Carnival" for a while — demonstrating the very worst in human nature, all for the sake of a story. As such, the movie quickly fizzled at the box office; American audiences didn't want such relentless, unblinkered cynicism, not a year into the Korean War, and rejected "Ace in the Hole." Over the course of time, though, its true and enduring value has been recognized.

The plot was in part inspired by the case of Floyd Collins, who was trapped in a Kentucky cave in 1925. Louisville cub reporter William Burke Miller — who was so slight that he could crawl down into the cave and talk to the trapped man — parlayed the story into national coverage for two weeks until Collins was found dead, and received that year's Pultizer Prize for his efforts. The Kentucky saga also inspired Adam Guettel's 1996 musical Floyd Collins, another remarkable work which was and remains hard to sell to audiences.

"Ace in the Hole" is included in Criterion's latest group of state-of-the-art releases, in a dual-format edition with both a Blu-ray and two DVDs. The new 2K digital restoration is accompanied by bonus features including the 1980 documentary "Portrait of a '60% Perfect Man': Billy Wilder;" a 1984 interview with Douglas; excerpts from Wilder's appearance at the American Film Institute; a video afterword by Spike Lee; and more. In place of the typical Criterion booklet comes a breezy four-page handout in the form of a tabloid newspaper (the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin of June 17, 1951, it says, five cents). This contains essays by Molly Haskell and Guy Maddin plus ten tabloid-style film stills and captures the feeling of the film.

Wilder's film retains its stark power, and so does Douglas, seen here just after his breakthrough role in the 1948 "Champion" and his less likely role as the gentleman caller in the 1950 film version of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. *

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Among the recent Criterion Blu-rays is Harold Lloyd's 1925 silent classic, " The Freshman." This is perhaps the best example of Lloyd's go-getter-who-succeeds-through-perseverance-and-gets-the-girl character, and was one of the most successful films of the decade. The extended football sequence, which was shot at the Rose Bowl, remains ingenious and wonderfully, laugh-out-loud funny. (I reviewed this several years ago, in a prior release from a different company.) Criterion's dual-format, three-disc edition is deluxe, as usual. Bonuses include a 1966 on-camera introduction to the film by Lloyd himself; Lloyd's 1953 appearance on "What's My Line?;" a 1963 Delta Kappa Alpha tribute to Lloyd featuring Steve Allen and Jack Lemmon; and three newly-restored Lloyd shorts, "The Marathon" (1919), "An Eastern Westerner" (1920) and "High and Dizzy" (1920).

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David O. Russell's 2012 "Silver Linings Playbook," starring Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro (and others), was a box-office smash that received eight Oscar nominations. Russell's 2013 "American Hustle" [Columbia], starring Cooper, Lawrence, De Niro (and others), was an even bigger smash, garnering ten nominations. Heading the cast were Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who had starred in Russell's 2010 "The Fighter" (with seven nominations).

"American Hustle" is a fictionalized account of the ABSCAM affair, in which the FBI set up a sting operation using a phony Arab sheikh to ensnare corrupt politicians. This allows Russell to recreate the disco-pulsed 1979 world of con men, which is anti-nostalgic and creepily fascinating. Bale, as the conman at the story's center; Adams, as a pseudo-British fake; and Cooper, as the out-of-his-league man from the FBI, are all compulsively watchable, as are Lawrence and De Niro. The production design and music take you right back to the time and the place, which can make you shudder — beginning with the extended opening sequence featuring Bale's hairpiece.

Russell seems to be churning out provocative, intelligent, surprising, crowd-pleasing films, one after the other; "American Hustle" and "Silver Linings Playbook," for me, are equally entertaining. This is due in part to the rep company of actors Russell attracts, yes; but the writer/director — who first crashed the gates with his provocative and surprising "Spanking the Monkey" in 1994 — continues to find interesting stories which he spins in unconventional ways.

(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.)