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William Wyler’s Love Letter to His Comrades in Arms: The Best Years of Our Lives

In the opening shot of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), CAPT Fred Derry walks into an airport terminal in hopes of catching a flight home to Boone City, USA. Upon reaching the clerk at the counter, Fred learns there is a several day wait for a commercial flight, even though he’s a returning war hero. A wealthy middle-aged businessman then charges up next to Fred, interrupts his conversation with the airline clerk, and confirms his seat on the next flight regardless of the extra cost. He barely acknowledges CAPT Derry, no nod or a “thank you for your service.” The air is thick with rotten apathy, and it’s this scene that signals the audience is in for a different kind of war movie. William Wyler, himself a WWII veteran, saw America’s shift in attitude immediately following the war. The wells of patriotism had been tapped dry and those keeping the fires burning on the home front were tired of making sacrifices. Once the servicemen returned home, the warm welcome was short lived. After fighting for years in the Pacific and Europe, these soldiers were expected to resume life as normal almost immediately. Definitely easier said than done. The transition back to civilian life was difficult for many of the soldiers displaced by the war, and Wiliam Wyler wanted to pay tribute to their post-war struggles.

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Beloved Infidel from Twilight Time

In 1933, British gossip columnist Sheilah Graham arrived in New York to accept a position writing for The New York Mirror and The Evening Journal. After two years establishing herself in the entertainment scene, Graham was offered her very own syndicated column, Hollywood Today, with the North American Newspaper Alliance. Graham moved to Los Angeles so she could insert herself into the Hollywood scene, putting her in with the likes the notorious gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper.

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Pierre Etaix: The Shorts. From The Criterion Collection

For decades, the work of Pierre Etaix has been unavailable to audiences. Unfortunately  Etaix did not have legal claim to his films, nor distribution rights. This resulted in his life’s work literally rotting away because of a bad business deal. After years of petitions and legal battles, Etaix reclaimed his films only to discover they would require an extensive restoration.

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Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) from The Criterion Collection

Information Transit got the wrong man. I got the right man. The wrong one was delivered to me as the right man, I accepted him on good faith as the right man. Was I wrong?

-Jack Lint

Credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
Credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

A few years back I had the good fortune of attending two separate panel discussions with Terry Gilliam here in Atlanta. The first panel focused on his directorial career and included an exclusive sneak peek of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). The second panel cold-opened with 20 minutes of rare footage from the never-aired Orson Welles Show before highlighting Gilliam’s work with Monty Python. His only explanation to the confused audience was that the footage we had just seen was an example of the kind of thing that inspired Python. During the Q&A portion of the first panel, someone asked him about the elaborate and ubiquitous system of ducts in Brazil. Gilliam explained that he has always been fascinated by the contents behind something. For the film, he decided to expose the inner-workings of the world’s far from perfect technology.

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) is set in a 20th century dystopian society brought on by a horribly inept bureaucracy in a totalitarian government. The residents of this unidentified country live and die by numbered forms, arbitrary fees, and sub-standard living conditions. Public spaces are plastered with propaganda posters akin to those from WWII. The government, with its Central Services division, delivers all utilities through an endless network of poorly maintained, obtrusive ducts. And instead of fixing what must have been a purchasing error, the three inch computer screens that are populated throughout the government offices have magnifying screens installed in front of them to get the displays to the correct size.

The protagonist of Gilliam’s surreal, eerily familiar world is Sam Lowry, played by Jonathan Pryce. Sam is a low-level clerk in the Department of Records, a division of the Ministry of Information. He has no lofty career goals, much to the chagrin of his vain, socialite mother Ida (Katherine Helmond). She insists Sam use her connections to obtain a more respectable position in the Ministry, but he continually declines. He would much rather go unnoticed. A typical day for Sam consists of monotonous data entry interspersed with phenomenal daydreams. These fantasies keep him relatively sane in a world dictated by ridiculous and meaningless constraints. In this alternate reality, Sam is a winged protector, soaring through the clouds in search of a damsel in distress.

Sam Lowry is a winged knight in his dream world
Sam Lowry is a winged knight in his dream world

Sam’s boss, Mr. Kurtzmann (Ian Holm), discovers that a typo on a warrant intended for rogue HVAC repairman Archibald Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), has led to the wrongful arrest and “questioning” of Archibald Buttle. During his session with Information Retrieval (read Torture Department), Buttle suffers a heart attack and dies at the hands of his interrogator Jack Lint (Michael Palin). Once it is discovered that Information Transit made an error in arresting Buttle, a refund check for the interrogation (yes, citizens must pay for their torture) is issued to his widow. Mr. Kurtzmann, a weasel of a man who is particularly inept at his job, assigns Sam with the task of personally delivering the check to Mrs. Buttle. Kurtzmann is keen to avoid any guilt by association which possession of the refund check in his department may cause. During his visit to the Buttle residence, Sam sees the woman from his dreams. He tries to approach her, but she runs away before he can catch her. Jill Layton (Kim Greist), is the Buttle’s upstairs neighbor at the sketchy Shangri-La Towers. She  is the only other witness to Mr. Buttle’s wrongful arrest and has taken it upon herself to report the grievance to the Ministry. Since they would prefer to keep their mistakes under wraps, the Ministry has marked Jill as a potential terrorist. Sam begrudgingly uses his mother’s connections to accept a promotion in Information Retrieval so he can gain access to Jill’s confidential file in an attempt to save her from the Ministry.

Courtesy of Moving Image Source
Courtesy of Moving Image Source

Last month, the Criterion Collection released a two-disc Blu-ray version of Brazil approved by director Terry Gilliam.  If you’re familiar with Terry Gilliam you know he has fought his entire career to place art before business, and not without some controversy. According to David Sterritt’s essay included in the Blu-ray set’s booklet, American audiences almost didn’t see Brazil as Gilliam had intended. When it was set to be released in America, Universal determined the film’s ending to be too bleak and hacked his masterpiece from 142 minutes down to 94. In this cut, known as the “Love Conquers All” version, the studio created a happy ending to the film, which not only undermined Gilliam, but completely altered the film’s message. Gilliam had released his original cut in Europe, and it was popular with critics and audiences alike. In an attempt to gain support and to ensure his complete version would be released in the States, Gilliam held a series of private screenings for press and critics–all unbeknownst to Universal. The LA Film Critics Association awarded the film Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Screenplay, although it had not been released publicly. With the awards, and a full page ad in Variety calling out Universal’s Sid Sheinberg, Gilliam was able to reach a compromise for the film’s release. He agreed to a slightly shortened 132-minute version, but fans of the film wanted to see the full cut that had been previously released in Europe. Included in the Criterion Blu-ray set is the 142-minute European cut, also known as “Terry’s Final Cut.”

Brazil is signature Gilliam and is at once beautifully shot, darkly funny, and completely heartbreaking. Films released on DVD/Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection are always given their due respect, and Brazil is no exception. In addition to a brand new, high-definition digital transfer and remastered Dolby 2.0 surround, the two-disc special edition contains hours of extras, including the bastardized  ”Love Conquers All” version. Of course all of these special extras and flawless presentation mean nothing without the excellent performances under Gilliam’s direction. Jonathan Pryce is superb as the romantic, yet atypical leading man. My personal favorite of the Monty Python troupe, Michael Palin, brings dark humor to his role as the lead interrogator Jack Lint. He is absolutely frightening due to his unwavering obedience of all Ministry protocol, even when the truth proves contradictory. The marvelous Katherine Helmond, an enigmatic Robert DeNiro, Kim Greist’s rough and tumble Jill Layton: their characters all are perfectly at home in Gilliam’s creation.

 

DIRECTOR-APPROVED SPECIAL FEATURES  (credit: Criterion):

  • Restored high-definition digital transfer of Terry Gilliam’s 142-minute director’s cut, approved by Gilliam, with DTS-HD Master Audio surround soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by Gilliam
  • What Is “Brazil”?, Rob Hedden’s on-set documentary
  • The Production Notebook, a collection of interviews and video essays, featuring a trove of Brazil-iana from Gilliam’s personal collection
  • The Battle of “Brazil,” a documentary about the film’s contentious release, hosted by Jack Mathews and based on his book of the same name
  • “Love Conquers All” version, the studio’s 94-minute, happy-ending cut of Brazil, with commentary by Brazil expert David Morgan
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by Jack Matthews on the DVD edition and a booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Sterritt on the Blu-ray edition

 

Disclaimer: Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence received a copy of Brazil from The Criterion Collection.

 

Heidi’s Song (1982) from Warner Archive

I love cartoons. I grew up on animated shorts and feature-length films from Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros., and MGM. Most were made before 1979, the year I was born. Thanks to re-runs on Saturday mornings, I received an education in mouse chasing from Tom, wisecracking from Bugs Bunny, and mystery solving from Scooby and the Gang. I have fond memories of new prime-time animated specials that you simply couldn’t miss. Remember, this was before VCR’s were affordable and DVR was something right out of The Jetsons. One of my strongest memories was seeing the premiere of the 1987 Rankin and Bass production of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. But for every clear memory there are a hundred fuzzy ones. There are TV shows and movies I have vague recollections of, but can’t remember specific details or when I saw them.

Enter Hanna-Barbera’s Heidi’s Song.

Released theatrically nationwide in 1982, Heidi’s Song didn’t do well at the box office, but has maintained a loyal following over the past 30 years. I can’t remember when I first saw it, but when I discovered Heidi’s Song was coming to DVD via Warner Archive, I had to watch it again.

Heidi’s Song is an animated musical based on the beloved children’s story Heidi, written by Swiss author Johanna Spyri. Orphaned since a baby, Heidi (voiced by Margery Gray) is under the care of her maternal Aunt Dete (Virginia Gregg). After 4 years, Aunt Dete begins to grow tired of caring for Heidi, and decides to take her to live with her paternal grandfather. Heidi’s grandfather (voiced by Lorne Greene) lives high up in the mountains and is known to be grumpy and reclusive. At first he is cold to Heidi, but she starts to wear down his gruff exterior. Before long, Grandfather is completely smitten with the sweet little girl. To Heidi and Grandfather’s dismay, Aunt Dete returns and insists that Heidi go to live with a wealthy family as a companion to their disabled daughter. Grandfather objects, but eventually decides to send Heidi away thinking it will be best for her. When Heidi arrives at her new home, she is greeted with open arms by Klara, who is confined to a wheelchair. Klara’s governess Fraulein Rottenmeier (what a name for a villian!) is displeased with Heidi’s appearance and uncultured upbringing. Klara manages to convince Rottenmeier to let Heidi stay. After several mishaps, Rottenmeier confines Heidi to a dark basement filled with rats. Although Heidi befriends many of the rats, their leader King Ratte (Sammy Davis, Jr.) turns them against her with a song and dance number. Heidi escapes King Ratte’s tiny rat-paw clutches and convinces Klara to travel with her back to the mountains to live with Grandfather.

The animation in Heidi’s Song is outstanding. As impressive as today’s computer generated animation is, it cannot compare to the high quality hand-drawn images found in so many animated classics. The “Nightmare Ballet” sequence is spectacular with its bright colored monsters, swirling shadows, and demonic creatures. Animation aside, the story is a significantly watered-down version of Spyri’s classic. Sammy Cahn and Burton Lane composed 16 original songs for the film, including the toe-tapping jazz number “Ode to a Rat”, sung by none other than Sammy Davis, Jr. The musical numbers are enjoyable, but feel as if they were tacked on as an afterthought. The Davis number is one of the best scenes, but it’s inconsistent with the rest of the film. Oh well, it’s Sammy Davis, Jr. He’s allowed to come and go as he damn well pleases, thank you very much. Although not Hanna-Barbera’s best, Heidi’s Song is enjoyable, especially to this child of the ’80s. When my daughter is a bit older, I’m sure she will enjoy it too.

Heidi’s Song is a manufactured on demand (MOD) disc with no special features. The film is struck from the best available source material. The video transfer is crisp, as it should be with an animated feature. The audio track is equally good.

 

Full disclosure: Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence received a copy of Heidi’s Song directly from Warner Archive.

 

Rage in Heaven (1941) from Warner Archive

One of the reasons I love classic film is the extensive number of “deep tracks”– those little hidden gems waiting to be discovered and shared. Alright, so maybe not all deep tracks are “gems”, but it’s still loads of fun to discover new-to-me old movies. A few years ago during a Robert Montgomery marathon on TCM, I managed to catch the strange psychological thriller Rage in Heaven. Released by MGM in 1941, and directed by W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke, Rage in Heaven stars Montgomery, the charming George Sanders, and the young, delightfully fresh-faced Ingrid Bergman. Discovered by David O. Selznick after seeing her performance in the Swedish film Intermezzo (1936), Bergman was immediately signed to a contract. She made her Hollywood debut in 1939 with the remake Intermezzo: A Love Story, with Leslie Howard. Bergman instantly won the affections of American moviegoers. And although her iconic role in the romantic classic Casablanca was three years away, Bergman quickly established herself as a Hollywood mainstay.

Robert Montgomery is Philip Monrell, heir to a British steel magnate. He’s also completely insane. After escaping a mental institution in France, Philip reunites with his best friend, or more accurately his best “frenemy”, Ward Andrews (George Sanders). Ward is unaware of Philip’s mental illness and led to believe that Philip has been on holiday in “the wilds of Africa” (imagine that line in Sanders’ distinctive voice, paired with an endearing “old boy” for good measure). The two friends travel to Philip’s home to visit his mother, who has been ill. While her son was away, Mrs. Monrell (Lucile Watson) employed Stella Bergen (Ingrid Bergman) to act as a secretary and companion. Upon their arrival, Philip and Ward are greeted by the luminous Stella. Both men are immediately struck by her beauty and innocence. There is an instant connection between Ward and Stella, causing Philip’s deeply rooted jealousy of Ward to slowly rear its head.

While Ward is called away for work, Philip aggressively courts Stella in an attempt to win her affections, and ultimately her hand in marriage. Although he succeeds in both, Philip’s growing paranoia that Ward will take Stella away from him begins to manifest into full-blown psychotic obsession. Once Ward returns to England, Philip concocts a series of elaborate situations where Ward and Stella are alone, in an attempt to catch them in an adulterous act. All of Ward and Stella’s interactions are entirely innocent, but Philip’s psychosis seriously impedes his judgment. Obviously. His perpetual mistrust torments Stella, and she seeks comfort with Ward. This only fuels Philip’s neurotic belief that Stella has been unfaithful from the start. Philip’s obsession reaches a disturbing climax, and Ward and Stella fear for their love of one another…and their lives.

Rage in Heaven is not a top-notch film, but I place some of the blame on the confinements of the Production Code, low budget, and troubled production. Although the story suffers, the performances from Montgomery, Bergman, and Sanders make up for the inadequacies. According to the esteemed Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun, Montgomery unintentionally gives a brilliantly nuanced performance as the psychotic Philip Monrell:

Reportedly, Montgomery didn’t want to make the movie, he wanted a break or vacation from his MGM contract but was forced into the role. In retaliation he delivered his lines as flat as possible within this super melodramatic milieu. Well, his angry decision worked, and he’s just so strange that we utterly believe this millionaire is a suicidal madman, one step away from the loony bin he left at the beginning of the movie.

George Sanders is superb as the kind-hearted Ward Andrews. Known more for playing a cad in films like Rebecca and All About Eve, Sanders is delightful as romantic lead. Ingrid Bergman’s seemingly effortless and natural acting style, which we all know and love, was apparent even in those early performances. Although their pairing seems odd, Bergman and Sanders make a wonderful on-screen couple.

As with other Warner Archive titles, Rage in Heaven is a manufactured on demand (MOD) disc with limited special features. The film is remastered from the best available source material. The video transfer and audio track are quite good. Rage in Heaven is a nice addition to your home library, if only to round out your “George Sanders as a lover” film collection.

Full disclosure: Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence received a copy of Rage in Heaven directly from Warner Archive.

This review is part of the 2012 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon co-hosted by my friend and fellow blogger Michael Nazarewycz of ScribeHard on Film.

 

Buster Keaton in The Saphead (1920) from Kino Classics

The Blu-ray release of Herbert Blaché’s The Saphead (1920) is the latest addition to Kino’s extensive catalog of Buster Keaton films. The Saphead holds the distinction of being Keaton’s first feature length motion picture. Prior to this movie, he starred in a number of two-reel shorts with dear friend and mentor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The Saphead is adapted from Winchell Smith’s stage play The New Henrietta, which starred Douglas Fairbanks. When Metro Studios began casting for the film, Fairbanks was asked to recreate his role as the dim-witted, well-meaning Bertie Van Alstyne. He declined and suggested Keaton for the part.

Nicholas “Old Nick” Van Alstyne (William H. Crane) is a wealthy investor and businessman in New York City. Old Nick’s most recent acquisition is the Henrietta Mine, making him the richest man in town. Despite his prominence in the stock market and New York society, Old Nick struggles with the perpetual thorn in his side, son Bertie (Buster Keaton). Each night Bertie stays out late gambling and carousing, usually sleeping until late afternoon. Adding insult to Old Nick’s injury, Bertie is rather dense. Truth is, Bertie is actually feigning his wild behavior to win the heart of Agnes (Beulah Booker), who happens to be his adopted sister. Bertie’s biological sister Rose (Carol Holloway) knows that he loves Agnes, but must keep it a secret from their father. Upon returning home from college, Agnes informs Rose that she is in love with Bertie. Relieved that he no longer has to live the life of a playboy, Bertie proposes marriage to Agnes. Fearful of Old Nick’s reaction to their engagement, the couple asks Rose to break the news. Old Nick immediately condemns their engagement, citing Bertie’s n’er-do-well tendencies. Nick reluctantly agrees to bless their union on the condition Bertie establishes independence so to provide for Agnes. Despite the best of intentions, Bertie struggles to win his father’s favor. Stepping into the “ideal son” role is Rose’s husband, Mark (Irving Cummings). Although Old Nick respects and trusts him, Mark is a failure. Rose urges her father to help Mark steady his feet in the business world so he can be successful. The family doesn’t realize that Mark is dishonest and hiding a dark secret. Through a series of terrible events, Old Nick is on the verge financial ruin, but is rescued by a most unlikely hero.

Bertie discovers he needs many hats to play Wall Street
Bertie discovers he needs many hats to play Wall Street

Although this is Keaton’s first feature-length motion picture, it is certainly not a Buster Keaton film. He did not have any creative control over the writing, production, and direction as he did in later films like The General, Our Hospitality, and Sherlock Jr. The Saphead is merely a mediocre film with a restrained, underused Keaton. There is one brief sequence near the end of the film allowing Keaton to show a glimpse of his physical comedy genius, but the scene feels disjointed from the rest of the movie.

Kino Classics has a tremendous reputation for providing high quality, extras-laden DVDs and Blu-rays. The Saphead is no exception. The video and audio are both exceptional, especially for a 92 year old film. The Blu-ray edition features two versions of the movie, one being the standard American release and the other an alternate version intended for international audiences. The disc includes a brief featurette comparing the two versions. Also included are two different scores: one by Robert Israel and the other by Ben Model. One of the most enjoyable extras is an audio recording from 1962 entitled Buster Keaton: Life of the Party. Although The Saphead is not a great movie, Kino’s release is a nice addition to your Buster Keaton collection.

The Saphead (Ultimate Edition)
Starring: Buster Keaton, Carol Holloway, Edward Connelly, William H. Crane
Composers: Ben Model & Robert Israel
Tinted B&W
Year:1920
Language:English intertitles
Length:77 mins
Aspect Ratio:1.33:1

Disclaimer: I received a review copy directly from Kino Lorber.