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June 30, 2020

Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations

sons of the desert.jpg
Sons of the Desert (William A. Seiter - 1933)

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Way Out West (James W. Horne - 1937)
plus nineteen shorts
MVD Visual / Kit Parker Films BD Regions ABC four-disc set

First, an admission. I have not seen everything in the four disc set. Part of it is because I like posting my thoughts on new home video releases on the street date, or as close to it as possible. And also, there is just so much stuff here to be seen, with an official running time of 485 minutes. While there may be some who will want to screen their own personal marathon, I prefer smaller increments. Two features, nineteen shorts (plus alternate versions of "Brats" and "Berth Marks"), plus commentary tracks, photo galleries and trailers, there is quite a lot to unpack. There is material to be gleaned by the more serious film scholar, but the main audience for this collection will more likely be the legions of fans.

For myself, this is the first time watching any Laurel and Hardy films since 2006. I was at the San Francisco Silent Festival where three shorts directed by Leo McCarey were shown to an audience of both adults and appreciative children. I am also part of that generation who grew up watching "the boys" on network television over fifty years ago. What struck me in watching this collection, which is mostly in chronological order of production, are those aspects that changed as well as what remained consistent.

The short, "Their First Mistake" (George Marshall - 1932) with an uncredited screenplay by Stan Laurel, could well be a key film. Hardy's onscreen wife complains about his spending more time with Laurel than with her. Hardy is later served divorce papers, as is Laurel for "alienation of affection". What can be found in film after film is the story of two men who prefer each others company to the almost virtual exclusion of anyone else. "Their First Mistake" continues with Hardy having adopted a child, suddenly in the situation of being a single parent, with a very funny look at gender roles. More extreme is "Twice Two" (James Parrott - 1933) with Stan and Ollie each having sisters played by the pair in drag, with Stan's sister married to Ollie and Ollie's sister married to Stan. Even if certain things might be unsaid, I do not think the filmmakers, least of all Stan Laurel, was unaware of the implications of the team's onscreen appearances.

Laurel and Hardy as a comedy team almost eclipses their earlier work. Oliver Hardy started appearing in films in 1915, and even tried his hand at directing several films before concentrating on acting. Stan Laurel was part of Fred Karno's team of British music hall performers who came to Hollywood in 1920. Along with Laurel was fellow comic performer Charlie Chaplin. The success of the "Little Tramp" was such that Laurel appeared as an imitator in several films, while Hardy was in supporting roles in films starring another Chaplin imitator, Billy West. Hardy had some comic leads, while Laurel eventually became a star in his own right, as well as a writer-director. What also makes Laurel and Hardy unique is that they were well into their thirties at the time they officially became the comic team, each with more than a decade of experience both in front and behind the camera. On screen, the two were equals as physically comic performers. Stan Laurel was the more active of the two regarding the production of the films, even listed as the producer of the feature Way Out West.

When one looks at the credits of the actors and production team, there is some criss-crossing of friends and relatives within the Hal Roach studio. Writer-director James Parrott had a brother, Charles, better known as Charley Chase, whose manic appearance is one of the highlights of Sons of the Desert. James W. Horne, director of Way Out West, was also the uncle of George Stevens, Stan Laurel's chosen cinematographer on "Battle of the Century" (1927) and "Brats" (1930). Leo McCarey's younger brother, Raymond, directed "Scram!" (1933). For all of information provided by L & H scholar Randy Skretvedt on the making of Sons of the Desert, there is no explanation as to how what is arguably the best of the feature films, was directed by William Seiter, who along with cinematographer Kenneth Peach was from outside of the Hal Roach studio.

More scholarly is Richard Bann's commentary for "The Battle of the Century". What we have is reconstruction with previously lost footage, some stills with explanatory titles, and a scan of a 16mm print. The film is most noted for the climatic pie fight which reportedly used 3000 real pies. Of interest is the brief sight of an almost svelte Eugene Pallette as an insurance salesman. Bann discusses the history of the making of the film its history as a lost film.

My only conclusion is that I do prefer the pre-code films, the gags are both more savage and more funny. Laurel and Hardy exist in a world of domineering wives, belligerent authority figures and mechanical failure. And if the former Stanley Arthur Jefferson remains the more beloved, there may be little that makes me laugh as consistently as watching Oliver Norvell Hardy getting beaned on the head.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:35 AM

June 16, 2020



Karel Reisz - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

With four different versions, there is a question regarding some of the ellipses that take place in Isadora. The original release version was 177 minutes long, seen in December 1968 for an Oscar qualifying run. The film was subsequently shortened following negative reviews from the Los Angeles critics. The British release was 138 minutes, while the U.S. version was even shorter at 131 minutes. There is a "director's cut" that was supervised by Reisz, available only on VHS at 154 minutes. For reasons unknown, possibly due to quality of the source print, the blu-ray is essentially the British release version with a brief pre-credit scene added. That scene is of Isadora Duncan as a child making a vow of how she plans to live her life. Biographical films should always be approached cautiously, even more so films that have their own troubled histories.

Isadora was never meant to be in the mold of the traditional biographical film. It's more of a dream of the past. The structure is that of Duncan during her last days at a hotel in Nice, France, 1927, remembering her past. Reisz cuts between 1927 and various points in Duncan's life from briefly performing in a musical hall to Sousa's "Washington Post", jumping forward to one of her Greek inspired performances for a salon in Europe. In the scenes that take place in 1927, Duncan becomes infatuated with a mysterious man who drives a blood red Bugatti. When not narrating her memoirs to her frustrated biographer, she whiles away time with the reading of Tarot cards, with the death card pointedly removed from the deck. Those looking for fidelity to facts would have to look elsewhere, even while the film credits Duncan's autobiography and Sewell Stokes' biography as basis for the screenplay by Melvyn Bragg, Clive Exton and Margaret Drabble.

At one point we see Duncan imagining herself running and dancing through Greek ruins. There is also a shot of Duncan dancing on an empty, gray wooden floor which is finally revealed to be the stage on which she is performing. Credit does go to Vanessa Redgrave, who not only mimics Duncan's mannerisms, but is the one doing the dancing. Unlike some films from the time before computer magic, there is no cheating with cutting between close-ups of the star and long shots of a professional dancer identically dressed viewed from a distance. Here the dances are all Redgrave, with her final dance performance in the film seen full body. Reportedly, Redgrave trained for six months before filming. Redgrave did get Oscar nomination for her performance, and won the Best Actress award at Cannes in 1969.

The blu-ray features a commentary track by filmmaker/historian Daniel Kremer and director Allan Arkush. This is one of the better commentary tracks primarily because of the discussion of Reisz's use of the zoom lens, hand-held camera work, and editing. There is some discussion on Reisz writing about film editing, his history with the Free Cinema movement, and the impact his debut feature, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning had on British cinema. One digression has Kremer and Arkush discussing how film editing changed with new technology. In this pre-digital era, the change was from gluing together strips of 35mm film to the use of clear tape for splicing, which in turn allowed filmmakers to easily make the deliberately more fragmented films with jump cuts and flash frames. Elsewhere Kremer and Arkush point out the use of color in Isadora, and how the film fits in with Reisz's other work as well as some of the films made at the time of release. While most of the commentary is devoted to Reisz, Kremer and Arkush also make room to discuss Vanessa Redgrave, co-star Jason Robards, cinematographer Larry Pizer, editor Tom Priestley, and score composer Maurice Jarre. My only quibble would be that that the enthusiasm of Kremer and Arkush is such that they occasionally interrupt each other in mid-thought. Otherwise, a commentary track that may seem academic in description is a lively and knowledgeable exchange.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 06:24 AM

June 09, 2020

Viktor und Viktoria


Reinhold Shunzel - 1933
Kino Classics BD Region A

Of the various versions that were taken from the same basic premise, I went about things in backward order. First seen was Blake Edwards' Victor/Victoria at the time of release in 1982. Then a few years ago, when Netflix had a wider selection of older films available for streaming, I saw the British First a Girl (1935). It should be noted that at the time of production, Reinhold Shunzel's film was also filmed in a French language version, also featuring Anton Walbrook, at that time still known as Adolf Wohlbruck. There is also a 1957 West German remake, and an Argentinian version from 1975 that originally was set to star an actual cross-dressing star. What is also interesting is that while the 1935 and 1982 films acknowledge being based on Shunzel's film, aside from the main characters being a woman gaining show business fame impersonating a man impersonating a woman, the details of the respective narratives are different.

Contemporary viewers looking for gender-bending comedy might be happier with Edwards' film, where what was barely hinted at in the first film gets boisterously pushed front and center. There's a more gentle comedy at play here when Shunzel films the look of London's high society men infatuated with the performer, "Mr. Viktoria", assumed to be a woman on stage, until the climax with "his" wig removed. This is followed by a scene at a restaurant where several older, wealthy women hope to gain the attention of who they assume is the boyish young man. The British 1935 version has a marginally more suggestive moment of sexual confusion, although of films made during this era, neither compares to various cross-gender antics of George Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935).

Remove the female as female impersonator plot, and Viktor und Viktoria remains a remarkably funny comedy. There is Renate Muller taking pratfalls in her stage debut as Mr. Viktoria. Her partner in this deception, the failed actor and original Mr. Viktoria, played by Hermann Thimig, is first seen hamming it up in an audition with virtually every Shakespearean monologue he can remember, stumbling over furniture, almost literally bringing the house down. One of the best gags is at the beginning of the film - the camera pans past a group of various actors waiting to audition, we hear the voice of a female singing an aria from an opera, the voice seems to be coming from one of the women standing along the wall, only for the camera to continue past her, and the mouth open wide with song actually was an undisguised yawn of boredom.

The film has plenty of traveling shots as well as inventive uses of sound. Shunzel also knows when to keep the camera stationary, as in a delightful shot of Muller, dressed as a male, seen in long shot trying to discretely watch Anton Walbrook walk away from her down a hotel corridor, darting away when Walbrook looks back. Renate Muller's big dance number shows the obvious influence of Busby Berkeley, with its chorus girls filmed from above, albeit with fewer dancers. Shunzel seems to have had the full artillery of technical resources at the legendary UFA studio to make a film as accomplished as anything from Hollywood in 1933.

The blu-ray is sourced from a 2013 German restoration that shows some wear, but nothing substantial. The commentary track by scholar Gaylyn Studlar points to the connections the director and stars had with Ernst Lubitsch, Max Reinhardt and Gerd Oswald, both professionally and with transgressive narratives. The stories of the several of the cast and crew are equally compelling. By 1937, when the Nazis totally took over the German film industry, Renate Muller, was no longer a top star due to her relationship with a Jewish man, death officially by suicide. Anton Walbrook, gay and Jewish, emigrated to England, with a continued successful career. Being gay and Jewish did not stop Reinhold Shunzel from being offered the title of Honorary Aryan due to his popularity as both an actor and director. Shunzel had greater confidence in the dictatorship of Louis B. Mayer and directed three films for MGM in the late Thirties, with the rest of his American career as an actor. Hermann Thimig managed to get through World War II and post-war Germany relatively untouched, continuing to act continuously in films through 1967. What makes this even more impressive is that his sister, Helene, had left Germany with husband Max Reinhardt, indicative of stardom that could even dazzle Adolf Hitler.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:31 AM