Yearly Archives: 2013

Executive Suite (Warner Archive)

Posted on August 29, 2013 at 4:25 am

Ultra-smooth, polished 50s boardroom drama/sudser. Warner Bros.’ fun Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles continues to raid previous disc collections (2007’s Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection in this case) for stand-alone titles with Executive Suite, the 1954 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer hit starring William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Fredric March, Walter Pigeon, Shelley Winters, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Dean Jagger, and Nina Foch. Cleverly scripted by Ernest Lehman (from Cameron Hawley’s smash bestseller), cleanly directed by Robert Wise, and with that high-powered, almost all-star cast, Executive Suite‘s super-slick production has “prestige” written all over it, creating a glossy, entertaining pic that holds up remarkably well almost 50 years later. Some substantial extras (for an Archive Collection release, at least), including a commentary track from director Oliver Stone, compliment this razor-sharp black and white transfer.

New York City, 1954. Having just sent a telegram to his Millburgh, Pennsylvania office tower, calling for an executive board meeting at 6:00pm that night, Tredway Corporation president Avery Bullard drops dead in the street, followed immediately by a proper New York City memorial: someone steals his wallet and ditches the i.d.. Investment banker and Tredway board member George Caswell (Louis Calhern) witnesses this tragedy from his office window, and follows up with a proper investment banker memorial: he instantaneously sells 3700 shares of Tredway stock short in the hopes of picking them back up again at a sizeable profit. Meanwhile, back in Tredway Tower, the five vice-presidents for the nation’s third-largest furniture manufacturer assemble for the meeting: affable, weak number two man Frederick Alderson (Walter Pigeon); numbers-obsessed company controller Loren Shaw (Fredric March); back-slapper head of sales Josiah Dudley (Paul Douglas); old-school plant manager Jesse Q. Grimm (Dean Jagger); and hotshot engineer in R & D, McDonald Walling (William Holden). When they discover that Bullard, the dynamo of Tredway Corporation who refused to groom a potential successor, has died, the jockeying for position begins, with profit-line Shaw eventually squaring off with idealistic Walling for the presidency. And, as always with such powerful men, the women behind them suffer: Mary Walling (June Allyson) fears her understanding husband will turn into another Bullard; secretary Eva Bardeman (Shelley Winters) fears her lover Dudley will dump her; major stockholder and member of the board Julia Tredway (Barbara Stanwyck) becomes suicidal when she learns her once-lover Bullard is dead; and executive secretary Erica Martin (Nina Foch) watches quietly to see who will be her next boss.

Listening to director Oliver Stone’s mixed-bag commentary for Executive Suite, one might be tempted-at first-to buy his assertion that the movie is primarily a socio-economic treatise on business in 1950s America, masquerading as a high-powered drama. Certainly the opening visuals suggest that possible theme, with the stark, quiet shots of the tall Wall Street towers as a bell ominously tolls: American commerce as religion (the interiors of the Tredway Tower go further, with its gothic stonework and arches, and an executive loft not at all unlike a pulpit). As well, Holden’s final idealistic plea for “people-over-profits” before the board at the movie’s well-staged boardroom showdown is taken by some as the movie’s central theme, where Holden makes that familiar, consensus-building 1950s moviemaking pledge of the melding of science and heart as the answer to America’s spiritual/business woes (a message not at all unlike Henry Fonda’s display of superior scientific logistics and corresponding saint-worthy humanity to build the consensus of a “not guilty” plea in 12 Angry Men).

However, I don’t think Executive Suite‘s screenplay or its direction is really as concerned with what may or may not be undoing American business, as it is with presenting a superior soap, masquerading as an ideological war between profit-obsessed CPA March and quality-obsessed scientist Holden. Just as M-G-M’s entertaining 1947 melodrama The Hucksters was really more about Clark Gable and Deborah Kerr’s romance, rather than a complete attempt to skewer the relationship between advertising and the media, Executive Suite is exceptional melodrama first, rather than cautionary social message. Just on hunch alone, if M-G-M and specifically Dore Schary wanted a “message movie” first, they wouldn’t have spent all that dough on such a large, all-star cast. Closer examination, though, reveals that for all of the movie’s talk about business, it’s talk that boils down to generalized observations that certainly weren’t even close to new in 1954 (Executive Suite‘s themes were being argued as soon as mechanized assembly lines revolutionized American production methods).

Holden’s end-game lecture is big talk, but it really only differs from March’s approach in terms of aesthetics and an extra screw for each table leg. He still wants profits (dirty capitalist!), and his desire for “simplicity” and “beauty” micro-budgeted down to the fraction of a penny through science…sounds like the beginnings of a very nice line of robot-produced IKEA tables. Anyone buying as “real” the sunshine and lollipops that Holden promotes at the end of Executive Suite has to be dreaming (funny how liberal director Stone doesn’t mention destructive unions and cheap foreign imports in his weirdly jumbled-up defense/attack of paternalistic 1950s factory management). Executive Suite‘s multi-faceted, intricate plot machinations of the various power struggles both in the boardroom and the bedroom, are frankly more compelling than any discussion about widgets, with the romantic angles taking up just as much screen time as talk about profits and veneers (patrons buying tickets to see superstars Holden and Alyson weren’t looking for an economics lesson). Executive Suite‘s plot points are indeed tempered with exceedingly good taste…but they’re melodrama, just the same-and expertly executed melodrama, at that.

The DVD:

The Video:
The full-screen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for Executive Suite looks terrific, with a super-sharp image, glossy blacks, and just a few imperfections here and there.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English split mono is acceptable, with minor hiss and fluctuation. English and French subtitles are included; no closed-captions, though.

The Extras:
As stated above, director Oliver Stone contributes a full-length commentary for the movie. It’s hard to take someone seriously who frequently lets loose with howlers like, “At the heart of all money is a crime,” and “There is no truth,” but I do want to acknowledge Stone’s genuine appreciation for Hollywood’s golden era and the obvious pleasure he takes in repeatedly-and rightfully-praising performers and filmmaking styles from a time period that are normally snorted at by other contemporary artists of his political bent (that’s what’s so fascinatingly screwy about him; here’s a guy that clearly loves old Hollywood and the “Hollywood happy ending,” and sees that artistic conceit as culturally valuable to emulate-he laments that as a society we no longer do so-while at the same time he publically praises dictatorial murderers like Castro and Chavez. Whacky.). A Pete Smith comedy short, Out for Fun is included here, along with one of my favorite toons, Billy Boy. An original trailer is also included.

Final Thoughts:
It’s about the melodrama and the romance, not the tabletops and the ledger sheets. If you’re looking for “truth” about the decline of 1950’s American manufacturing sector in Executive Suite, you probably got your economics degree from Bullwinkle’s old alma mater, Wossamotta U. With that cast and that gloss, and all those easy generalities about “quality versus quantity,” it’s much better to enjoy the pleasurably complex, insightful machinations of Executive Suite‘s power struggle plot, as well as the first-rate performances of the romantically-challenged couples. I’m highly, highly recommending Executive Suite.

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

 

Posted in Fun and Games

The Mask Of Dimitrios

Posted on August 27, 2013 at 4:25 am

Though The Mask of Dimitrios (1944), a film noir starring Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, is clearly patterned after The Maltese Falcon (Lorre and Greenstreet on a similarly Byzantine quest) and Casablanca (exotic foreign intrigue with colorful multinational cast), the picture, faithfully adapted from Eric Ambler’s novel (actually called A Coffin for Dimitrios), is also quite unusual, even unique. For starters, it lacks a truly central character, with fourth-billed Lorre more or less its protagonist. He’s cast way, WAY against type as a rather sweet, almost milquetoast mystery writer. And the film’s unusual structure closely resembles Citizen Kane (1941) and, in one respect, anticipates another Orson Welles role, in The Third Man (1949).

Lorre and Greenstreet did 10 movies together between 1941’s The Maltese Falcon and 1946’s The Verdict. In some of these, Casablanca for instance, they shared no scenes, but Warner Bros. gradually saw them as a kind of team, the trailer for this billing Greenstreet as “The Fat Man” (a reference to Falcon) and Lorre as “The Little Man.” The Mask of Dimitrios is partly a vehicle for them, partly a showcase for the studio’s new discovery, Zachery Scott, in his movie debut, as the scurrilous title character.

A Warner Archive release, The Mask of Dimitrios utilizes a decent transfer of slightly dodgy elements. I also encountered a strange electronic hum in the audio, so low some might not even notice it, but definitely there.

While visiting Istanbul, Dutch writer Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre) is approached by avid fan Colonel Haki (Kurt Katch), a distinguished police inspector. That very day Haki’s men recovered a body, stabbed and tossed into the Bosphorus, identified as elusive criminal mastermind Dimitrios Makropoulos.

Intrigued, like newsreel man Mr. Thompson in Citizen Kane, Leyden begins researching Dimitrios’s past, primarily through interviews with his former criminal associates, a former lover, and victims. Unlike Charles Foster Kane, Dimitrios Makropoulos (Zachery Scott) is an utterly unscrupulous man with no redeeming qualities at all except maybe an oily charm.

The film has several long flashback sequences, first recounting a failed assassination attempt in Bulgaria, where lover Irana Preveza (Faye Emerson) provides Dimitrios with an alibi and loans him money to flee the country. Later, Leyden interviews former spy Wladislaw Grodek (Victor Francen), who tells of Dimitrios’s sadistic manipulation of Karel Bulic (Steven Geray), a meek Yugoslavian government worker.

In the present day, as Leyden travels all over Eastern Europe, searching for clues about Dimitrios, charming but mysterious Mr. Peters (Sydney Greenstreet) shadows the writer’s every move, eventually becoming friendly with him. As with other Lorre-Greenstreet pairings, their scenes together, mesmerizingly performed, are a highlight.

Unlike Dimitrios, Peters is a criminal with much humanity, and he’s fascinated by Leyden’s kind-heartedness and gentle soul. While Greenstreet plays, expertly, a variation of his usual persona (seated, Greenstreet is even photographed in the same manner as The Maltese Falcon: low camera angles emphasizing his girth), Lorre on the other hand couldn’t be further removed from his regular Warner Bros. image, one usually closer to Dimitrios than Leyden. But his performance is just wonderful, even endearing, and the film’s impressively tense climax ends on a genuinely touching note.

Lorre and Greenstreet compensate for the, at times, shaggy dog story air of the narrative, as do the marvelous art direction and set decoration by, respectively, Ted Smith and Walter F. Tilford. The film may not offer authentic recreations of Istanbul, Athens, Sofia, Paris, etc., but they certainly overflow with smoky, noirish atmosphere, particularly the Paris Metro sets. Adolph Deutsch’s musical score is also outstanding.

Video & Audio

For some reason The Mask of Dimitrios has always looked a bit dog-eared in television airings and home video versions, as if a composite of film elements are all that survive. It’s not bad, just not up to the level of other Warner titles from this period. I also noticed, faintly, a familiar sounding electronic hum I never could quite identify during various shots, probably most noticeable around the 1:23:57 mark. It’s so faint many won’t notice it, nor did it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the picture, but it’s there. Otherwise, the Dolby Digital mono audio (English only, no subtitles) is acceptable on this region-free release.

Extra Features

The lone extra is an original trailer, which opens with Greenstreet bidding viewers to “Come closer. I’m going to tell you of another story,” which he did in several Warner Bros. trailers.

Parting Thoughts

Very enjoyable, particularly for the performances of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, The Mask of Dimitrios is Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart’s Cine Blogarama here.

Posted in Fun and Games

The Lesser Blessed

Posted on August 23, 2013 at 4:25 am

Director: Anita Doron
Starring: Joel Evans, Chloe Rose, Benjamin Bratt
Year: 2012

You never know what you’re going to get from a first time film actor. They could have “it” or they could be dead wood. And it’s especially unpredictable when they have no previous experience whatsoever. Joel Evans had never acted before, never had a lesson, and yet was approached by Anita Doron and asked to audition for the lead role in The Lesser Blessed. Evans is from Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, Canada, the same home town as author Richard Van Camp who wrote the novel of the same title from which the film is adapted. Incidentally, the novel is Van Camp’s only full-length book. So we have a writer who has only written the one book, an actor who has never acted, and a director who is roaming the streets looking for someone who might want to try being in a movie. I wish I had known all this before I watched it, because it would have at least alerted me to the possibility that this whole film might be a complete failure and that I might want to avoid it.

The Movie

The film is based on the life, past, and angst of teenager Larry Sole. Larry is a member of the Dogrib First Nation people, a native tribe from northwest Canada. He and his mother live in Fort Simmer, where Larry attends the local high school and his mother obsesses over a man named Jed. He is, in many ways, a substitute father, as Larry’s real dad is history. A tragic event, which Larry calls his “accident”, is responsible in some murky fashion for his current position; new town, no dad. But Jed has issues of his own, and will bolt into the bush whenever he is faced with confrontation, which is not what Larry needs right now. He is a self-loathing mess, spending much of his time listening to heavy metal, practicing the drums, avoiding eye contact, and hiding his scars. It’s not apparent at first why, but Larry has serious burn marks, and his “accident”, his father, his past, and his current troubles are all wrapped up in a knot that is likely never to come loose.

Enter trouble in three different forms, all more confident and volatile than Larry. First, Juliet Hope, the angel of his daydreams. Juliet represents all that is beautiful and perfect; her blond hair, her pale skin, her kind manner. But she hides a disastrous desire to be loved that is not easy to fulfill. Next, Darcy McManus, the joker/punk/bully/jerk who knows the secrets of Larry’s past. Darcy picks on him relentlessly, frightening him with fire, and treating him as if he were less than dirt. And finally, Johnny Beck, the new kid and the only person who seems to like Larry. Johnny sticks up for him, teaches him to fight, makes him feel cooler than he’s ever felt before. But this new-found confidence will lead to more trouble than it might be worth. When the gorgeous Juliet falls for the suave Johnny, Larry becomes the third wheel. And when the group begins to enter into the cool world of sex, drugs, and pseudo-adulthood, Larry finds himself in over his head, forced to confront all the issues that have held him back and stopped him from loving anyone, especially himself.

You can probably gather from the summary that the plot of The Lesser Blessed is a little bit contrived. It just feels like we’ve seen it all before; the loner, the hot girl, the new kid, the big bully, the daddy issues, the weak mother, the high school teachers, the school dance. It’s not like the film is 10 Things I Hate About You, but you get the point. It’s a dramatic take on a tired storyline and the result is that it doesn’t feel very honest. I wonder how the book reads, and if it feels more like the autobiography of Van Camp’s life, as opposed to the movie, which feels like a cheap knock-off. If Larry is supposed to be Van Camp then that explains a little; perhaps these cliche things really did happen to him. After all, cliche things are cliche because they happen. But regardless, it just didn’t translate into a feature film, because this isn’t a big Hollywood production, which seems to be the only way we can forgive recycled plots. Maybe that’s our problem and it’s a double standard, but that doesn’t change the fact that we expect something unique from a film festival movie.

With all the amateurs involved in this film, the director was even more important than usual. There was no falling back on the talent of the veteran actor or the well-known novel or the original plot, because those things didn’t exist in this movie. There was a lot riding on Doron’s shoulders as the only experienced player in the game. Unfortunately, it seems like all the pressure got to her. The movie was over-directed, quite simply, although I’m not sure if the alternative would have been any better. The film was too reliant on an artificial mood created by the director and not enough on the emotions of the actors. Again, I understand why, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. The result was that every scene seemed so incredibly heavy and overbearing. The music, the voice overs, the cold locale; everything was produced to be dramatic, and it was just too obvious. Because you could see all the work that went into trying to make the movie believable, it was of course not believable.

There was one piece of the film that could have fixed the plot and direction problems, could have made them fade into the background, and that piece was Joel Evans. As the center of all the action and emotion, a great performance from him would have swept away all my doubt in the production of the film and allowed me to really buy into the story. Well, that didn’t happened. Evans isn’t an actor. He just isn’t, and although he looks the part, he was never up to the challenge of supporting such a complicated role and pivotal character. He came off as more of a set piece than an actor, with a wooden performance that lacked any sort of believable emotion. I was never rooting for Larry, never hoping his dreams would come true, and that’s a major problem. He was even supported by a pretty nice cast; Benjamin Bratt giving perhaps the best true performance I have ever seen from him, and Adam Butcher playing Darcy the bully perfectly. But it just wasn’t enough; you can’t really overcome a bad script, heavy-handed directing, and a lead actor who just seems to be phoning it in.

The DVD

Video: With an aspect ration of 16:9 widescreen, the picture quality was just fine. The video was produced and edited well, it just didn’t have a chance to shine. Much of the movie is drab and cold, not really providing much opportunity for a high quality picture to show off.

Audio: The sound is done in 5.1 surround, so that’s fine. But there are no audio options on the DVD; no language selections or sound selections. There is, however, a Descriptive Video Track, which can be turned on to run with the film. It provides a mix of the dialogue with some scene narration during natural pauses, intended to enhance the experience of the visually impaired.

Extras: There are a few good extras. Interviews with the cast and crew, including Benjamin Bratt, Joel Evans, Kiowa Gordon, Chloe Rose, Tamara Podemski, Adam Butcher, Anita Doron, and Richard Van Camp. And five trailers; Take Me Home, Looking For Palladin, The Sensation of Sight, Pearl Diver, and The Lesser Blessed.

Final Thoughts

Skip It. There just aren’t enough positives to recommend this film. It wasn’t horrible, but it just had too many problems. The directing needed to be lighter and the lead actor needed to be better, simple as that. The video, audio, and extras were all fine, but unimpressive. And that’s a good word to describe the whole film, as it didn’t leave me with much to remember. Fondly, at least.

Posted in Fun and Games

The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg

Posted on August 21, 2013 at 4:25 am

The Movie:

If your only exposure to Allen Ginsberg comes via James Franco’s self-indulgent portrayal of the poet/activist in 2010’s Howl … well, I think you’re a very sad person. There’s an easy way to remedy that, however. Get to the nearest library, check out his best writings, and look out for the documentary The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg.

Truth be told, Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) lived such a long and varied life that any attempt to bottle the man’s essence in a documentary is bound to come up short. With The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, director Jerry Aronson does an admirable job of recounting the various stages of that life concisely, in chronological order. Premiering on PBS in the early ’90s, the piece may be fragmentary and somewhat staid, but it accurately captures the subject’s eccentricities. Docurama’s two-DVD edition of the film duplicates the same content as an out-of-print 2007 set. Both packages comprehensively supplement the feature with over six hours’ worth of interviews and features.

The Life and Times of … benefits greatly from the participation of Ginsberg himself, who is particularly illuminating when recalling his childhood and the years with the Beats. Born in Newark, New Jersey to a high school teacher/aspiring poet and a housewife plagued with mental issues who was shuttled in and out of various institutions, Ginsberg candidly recalls how both parents shaped his worldview (there’s also a lot of great observations on this period from Allen’s brother and his aunt). The film also goes into absorbing detail on the coalescing of the Beat movement in New York City, a loose collective of restless, anti-conformist artists which also included William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and several others. It was also during this time that Ginsberg came out as a gay man (Kerouac was the first to know), something that informed his work as much, if not more, as the anti-consumerist, anti-phoniness philosophy of his fellow Beats.

Although its neatly divided by decade, this documentary takes on an unfocused, hopscotching approach, relying heavily on archival footage (e.g. a ’60s film of Ginsberg describing a mural of himself and his compadres painted a decade-plus earlier, or ’80s footage of Ginsberg recalling his childhood). It can be disorienting, but the film really comes alive whenever Ginsberg is reading his own poetry. The jagged, abstract way he stacked words upon each other shares similarities with what jazz musicians of the time were creating with Beebop, with equally jarring effects. He reads a powerful excerpt from “Howl,” along with two lesser-known but touching pieces Ginsberg wrote following the deaths of his parents. Strangely, the doc contains no mention Ginsberg’s contentious 1957 obscenity trial over “Howl,” which formed the basis for the story in the Franco film.

Although best known as a poet, the documentary does decent work of proving that Ginsberg’s influence went well beyond the literary world. There’s a sojourn as a mover and shaker in San Francisco in the ’50s, where he met his life partner, Peter Orlovsky. As the doc moves along into the ’60s and onward, however, it becomes a lot less focused. Where his Beat brethren were falling apart, Ginsberg’s stature grew in the the following decade. It’s this period when he embraced Buddhism and befriended rock musicians like Bob Dylan and The Beatles, becoming something of a patron saint for the emerging hippie movement. That era is well encapsulated with Ginsberg’s reluctant participation in the violent protests outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, along with his weird talk show appearance opposite a condescending William F. Buckley, Jr. (there’s also some excellent footage from a later sit-down with a decidedly more simpatico Dick Cavett). The film breezes through the ’70s (nuke protest!) and ’80s (a photo exhibit!) before settling down with a hastily assembled coda following Ginsberg’s death in 1997.

Director Jerry Aronson labored long and hard on The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg long before the final product was exhibited, and it shows. After working on the film for much of the ’80s, he was able to secure financing from French investors and the documentary toured the festival circuit in 1993. Following Ginsberg’s death four years later, the film received further revisions (it’s this “Director’s Cut” which is included on the DVD) and got broadcast on PBS as part of their American Masters series. Although enjoyable, the film ends up being fragmentary, staid, and a little too in awe of its subject to truly take off. Interview footage from Ginsberg confidants like Ken Kesey and Joan Baez were filmed in the early ’80s, while the talks with Allen himself find him in various stages of age. His enthusiasm never falters, however, a side effect of being the lead participant in what was a truly extraordinary life.

The DVD:

Docurama’s 2013 edition of The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg is a straight-up reissue of a 2007 two-DVD set (now out of print) released by New Yorker. Except for some updated graphics on the packaging and disc labels, this release duplicates everything from that ’07 set (even the menu designs remain the same). Those who already own the earlier package don’t need to double-dip here.

Video

Visually this is basically what would be expected of an early ’90s documentary made from limited means. The 4:3 image is pale and soft, heavily drawing from archival material of varying quality. While the flaws aren’t anything that greatly damages the viewing experience, the source material shows its age and could have used some sprucing up.

Audio

The film sports an unassuming digital stereo mix with clear dialogue that doesn’t particularly stand out in any way. As with the visuals, the source material has a bit of minor age and wear. No alternate audio or subtitles are included here.

Extras

Along with the feature, roughly six hours of bonus footage is included. Most are extended interviews from footage filmed but not used in the feature. As outlined in a four-page booklet included in the packaging:
Disc One – Ginsberg & Burroughs (1983, 14 min.); Ginsberg & Cassady (vintage 1965 footage of the two at San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, 25 min.); The Making of The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg (interview with the director, 12 min.); Ginsberg & Dylan (1975 film taken at Jack Kerouac’s gravesite, 2 min.); Scenes from Allen’s Last Three Days on Earth as a Spirit (footage of the scene at Ginsberg’s apartment shortly after he passed away by filmmaker Jonas Mekas, 7 min.); Ballad of the Skeletons (’90s-era MTV segment with Ginsberg, Lenny Kaye, Paul McCartney, and Gus Van Sant, 7 min.); Ginsberg & Brakhage (1996, 3 min.); Selected Poems (1992 readings by Ginsberg, 18 min.); Howl Excerpts (6 min.); Photo Exhibition: Allen Ginsberg’s First Photo Exhibit (Ginsberg shows and discusses photos he took over the years, 1985, 8 min.); Ginsberg’s Photo Gallery; Director’s Photo Gallery.
Disc Two – In addition to 27 minutes of excerpts from Ginsberg’s 1998 memorial service, this disc is devoted to various interview segments with friends and admirers of the poet: Joan Baez (1984, 4 min.); Beck (2002, 6 min.); Stan Brakhage (2002, 5 min.); William Burroughs (1983, 9 min.); Johnny Depp (2003, 11 min.); Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1992, 6 min.); Philip Glass (1999, 10 min.); Peter Hale (2002, 10 min.); John Hammond Sr. (1985, 3 min.); Abbie Hoffman (1985, 6 min.); Jack Johnson (2002, 3 min.); Ken Kesey (1985, 3 min.); Timothy Leary (1983, 9 min.); Julian Beck and Judith Malina (1985, 5 min.); Paul McCartney (2005, 6 min.); Jonas Mekas (2004, 11 min.); Thurston Moore (2002, 9 min.); Yoko Ono (2004, 8 min.); Lee Ranaldo (2002, 10 min.); Gehlek Rimpoche (2004, 5 min.); Bob Rosenthal (2001, 9 min.); Ed Sanders (2003, 13 min.); Patti Smith (2001, 13 min.); Steven Taylor (2002, 15 min.); Hunter S. Thompson (2003, 2 min.); Bob Thurman (2004, 7 min); Anne Waldman (1992, 7 min.); Andy Warhol (1985, 3 min.).

Final Thoughts:

Docurama’s two-disc The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg supplements director Jerry Aronson’s 1997 portrait of the legendary Beat poet with hours of bonus material. The film may be dry and episodic when dealing with Ginsberg’s post-’50s life, but it’s an admiring survey of all the facets of this proud nonconformist’s work and passions. If you’re a fan of Ginsberg and the Beat writers, this comes recommended.

Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.

Posted in Fun and Games

Perry Mason – Final Season – Season 9, Volume 1

Posted on August 19, 2013 at 4:25 am

It will have taken slightly more than seven years, but before summer’s out all nine seasons of Perry Mason (1957-66) will at last be on DVD. (I do hope CBS/Paramount plan a release of the 26 later Perry Mason TV movies of 1985-1993, also starring Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale. Fans of the original series will surely want those, too.) By the 1965-66 season, the famous mystery/courtroom drama series starring Raymond Burr was quickly running out of steam after a whopping 250-plus episodes, of which Perry famously won them all. (Well, he sort of lost once, but that was a minor setback in the big scheme of things.)

The series, which had been the No. 5 prime-time series during Perry‘s fifth year, was not even in the top 30 during seasons eight and nine. Yet Perry Mason chugged along just the same, with no discernable drop in its (by television standards) quite lavish production values or top-flight guest stars. Like the later Batman, Perry Mason was, it seems, a show virtually everyone was eager to do, probably in part because of the camaraderie among Burr and his co-stars made it, by all accounts, a fun set.

But the show’s writing definitely suffered, or maybe Perry Mason was simply played out. In the second-half of its final year, there would be an all-color modern retelling of Oliver Twist, and another with Burr doing double duty as Perry’s doppelganger. The episodes included in Perry Mason – Final Season – Season 9, Volume 1 have its share of whoppers, too, including the series’ equivalent of Jet Pilot, with Perry battling commies in East Berlin.

Season 9, Volume 1, contains the first 15 episodes of the 1965-66 season, with “The Case of the Candy Queen,” and other cases involving Cheating Chancellors, Impetuous Imps, Carefree Coronaries, Baffling Bugs, and Bogus Buccaneers. (All Season 9, Volume 1 shows are new to DVD. None appeared on the compilation set from a few years back, Perry Mason – 50th Anniversary Edition.)

As noted in my sixteen (!) previous Perry Mason reviews, I’ve yet to see a truly terrible Perry Mason, though more than a few have put me to sleep. Nevertheless, the range between the best and worst episodes is so narrow I doubt even fans of the series could point to a particular favorite (or least-favorite) episode. That is, unless it was one of the very small handful of shows actually deviating from its established format. Though still fun, in this day of more sophisticated legal dramas like Law & Order, The Practice/Boston Legal, and Damages, watching the less believable and more formulaic Perry Mason requires a bit of an adjustment.

Really at the core of Perry Mason‘s appeal is its cast, and that’s hardly changed at all. Besides ingenious, resourceful Perry Mason (Burr), the famous Los Angeles attorney who never loses a case, there’s Perry’s loyal, tireless personal secretary, Della Street (Barbara Hale), and their worldly, slightly cynical pal/colleague, P.I. Paul Drake (William Hopper). Cases usually have them up against easily aggravated, perennial loser D.A. Hamilton Burger (William Talman).

Ray Collins, as doggedly determined Lt. Tragg, was ailing and absent from most of the later-season shows, and died during the summer reruns of 1965. Actor Wesley Lau stepped in to replace him, but without explanation for this final season Lau was himself replaced, this time by actor Richard Anderson. Anderson, later Oscar Goldman on both The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman and who’d guest-starred on several Perry Masons prior to this, is introduced as Lt. Steve Drumm in the season-opener, “The Case of the Laughing Lady.”

Essentially a mystery show with a courtroom setting for its climax, Perry Mason‘s single flaw is that as a mystery it doesn’t really play fair with its audience, though the same could be said for B-movie mysteries of the 1930s and ’40s, radio mystery shows, and virtually all other TV whodunits. Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot (to name two examples) faced seemingly irresolvable cases with bizarre, inexplicable clues, yet the solutions were always quite simple and logical. The great literary detectives simply had powers of observation lost on us mere mortals, even though we’re armed with the same information as those protagonists.

On the other hand, Perry Mason, the Charlie Chan movies, Murder, She Wrote, etc. operate under a different set of rules. The resolutions to the mysteries don’t always make sense and audiences often don’t have access to the same clues the protagonists do, and they often leap to conclusions and solve crimes in ways that don’t hold up to scrutiny. Instead, these kinds of movies, TV and radio shows rely heavily on atmosphere, characterization and star power to entertain their audiences. One might guess who the real murderer is, but in most cases you won’t be able to solve the mystery on your own.

Fortunately Burr, Hale, and Hopper are just wonderful in their roles. Apparently they became close friends in real life, and this camaraderie very much extends to their scenes together on the show. They liked to joke around, and at least one of these is visible to sharp-eyed viewers. Apparently over the course of the show’s run the three would occasionally make little changes to the abstract painting in Perry’s office. I’ve never compared the painting from the first show to its appearance in the last episode of the series, but supposedly it changes quite a bit over time.

About the middle of season two, Talman’s Hamilton Burger started getting more shading, a welcome addition. Often regarded as television’s most thankless role, Hamilton Burger this season still is Perry’s weekly nemesis but now he’s more affable outside the courtroom and flexible in, especially when new evidence casts a shadow of a doubt over the guilt of Perry’s client.

As a series, Perry Mason‘s decline is most evident in episodes like “The Case of the Fraudulent Fraulein,” an absurd show that has Perry negotiating for the release of an expatriate German’s heretofore unknown granddaughter. (Chameleon Jeanette Nolan affects a flawless German accent as his wife.) Partly inspired by the mid-‘60s spy craze, the episode instead mostly recalls the hysterical anticommunist movies of the late 1940s and early ‘50s, particularly during its climax, set in a nightmarishly foreboding, utilitarian courtroom emblematic of those earlier movies.

Guest stars in this set include Constance Towers, John Abbott, Bernard Fox, Allison Hayes (in one of her last roles), Julie Adams, Jesse White, Ford Rainey, Nan Martin, Nora Marlowe, John Archer, Kitty Kelly, Louise Latham, Barry Atwater, Peter Hobbs, Lee Meriwether, Stu Erwin, Richard Webb, Michael Fox, Rand Brooks, Robert Emhardt, Bruce Bennett, White Bissell, David Lewis, Dan Seymour, William Woodson, Noah Beery Jr., K.T. Stevens, Hugh Marlowe, Cathy Downs, Strother Martin, Robert Colbert, Mona Freeman, Bill Williams, Karl Swenson, Robert Quarry, Roy Roberts, Tommy Farrell, Sue England, Jeanne Bal, Gene Lyons (Burr’s later Ironside co-star), Walter Brooke, Robert Easton, Anthony Caruso, Michael Constantine, Gavin MacLeod, Robert H. Harris, Paul Winfield, Skip Homeier, Virginia Gregg, Cyril Delevanti, Susan Cramer, Jeanette Nolan, Kevin Hagen (who’d marry Cramer soon after their appearance together), Grant Williams, Dee Hartford, Victoria Vetri (future Hammer ingénue), Paula Stewart, Bruce Glover, Rhodes Reason, Patricia Cutts, Richard Jaeckel, Leonard Stone, and Meg Wylie.

Willis Bouchey, S. John Launer, Kenneth MacDonald, John Gallaudet, and Grandon Rhodes are back as judges, with Frank Biro, William Keene, Byron Morrow, Stacey Keach, Sr. new to the bench.

Video & Audio

  CBS DVD’s Perry Mason – Final Season – Season 9, Volume 1 presents 15 terrific-looking episodes spread over four single-sided, dual-layered DVDs. The black and white full-frame image is very sharp and detailed with strong blacks. The Dolby Digital English mono is generally quite good, too, and English SDH subtitles are offered. Episodes are not time-compressed, with some running up to 52 minutes. The music does not appear to have been altered, though the usual disclaimer warns, “some episodes may have been edited from their original network versions.” If so, I didn’t notice any obvious changes.

Extra Features

None

Parting Thoughts

Once again, Perry Mason‘s half-season sets continue at a brisk pace, and with high quality transfers always. It’s a fun show and if you’ve been buying them all along you won’t be disappointed here. Highly Recommended.

 

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart’s Cine Blogarama here.

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