- Posted: 10:43 AM, April 24, 2012
This is a catch-up column after a month's absence due to a vacation, Kyle Smith's temporary assignment to London and my trip to Hollywood for the TCM Classic Film Festival, where I got an early look at some spectacular digital restorations -- including "Singin' in the Rain,'' "Funny Face'' and "Cabaret'' -- that will be turning up on video later this year.
Any pre-code film starring the fast-talking Lee Tracy is a welcome addition to DVD. "Clear All Wires!'' (1933), the first made during his brief association with MGM (he was fired for a drunken escapade in Mexico during the making of the still-MIA-on-DVD "Viva Villa!" and replaced by Stuart Erwin) is one that was on our wishlist for TCM's "Shadows of Russia'' series a couple of years ago but didn't make the final cut. It's precisely the sort of fascinating obscurity that typifies the curatorial genius of the Warner Archive Collection.
Based on a short-lived play by Sam and Bella Spewack ("Boy Meets Girl,'' "Kiss Me Kate'') that starred Thomas Mitchell -- they later heavily reworked it as a more successful Cole Porter musical-- "Wires'' typecasts Tracy as a foreign correspondent for a fictional Chicago paper who arrives in Moscow to report on, among other things, "the new [Soviet] woman.'' Fired for pickpocketing a credential from a New York Times correspondent to get an exclusive interview with Stalin, Tracy contrives a phony assassination attempt against a supposed survivor of the Czar's family to get himself back in the good graces of his employers.
Briskly directed by the undeservedly forgotten George Hill ("The Big House''), who committed suicide the next year, "Clear All Wires!'' features Benita Hume and Una Merkel as love interest, Akim Tamiroff as a hotel desk clerk and C. Henry Gordon as the head of the Soviet secret police. But only James Gleason as Tracy's conniving assistant has a prayer of upstaging the galvanic star in this very funny little movie.
RKO, Tracy's most frequent home after his MGM tenure (he had previously tested the patience of Fox, Columbia, Universal and Warners) was initially partly owned by RCA and rarely passed up on opportunity to showcase radio personalities features on the latter's NBC radio subsidiary.
Oddly, the most successful of these was the now-forgotten bandleader Kay Kyser, who scored one of the studio's biggest hits of 1939 with his first and best starring vehicle, "That's Right You're Wrong,'' a hilariously meta comedy about a movie studio's attempts to build a movie around a bandleader who can't act (this will presumably be included in the Warner Archive Collection's second set devoted to the RKO comedies of its female lead, Lucille Ball). Kyser played himself again in the horror-comedy "You'll Find Out,'' which Warners released at retail in 2009 as part of an oddball collection of Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi films (the horror stars both share under the title billing Peter Lorre).
The "Kay Kyser Double Feature'' recently released by Warner Archive includes his third starring vehicle,"Playmates'' (1941), which revisits the earlier comic theme of trying to turn Kyser (for a third time accorded solo above the tile billing) into an actor. This time, his agent (Peter Lind Hayes, replacing Dennis O'Keefe in the two earlier films, which like this one were directed by David Butler) gives him the services of no less than John Barrymore.
The Great Profile -- shown the door by RKO in 1934 after he failed to show up for "Hat, Coat and Glove'' (1934) and fresh from his comeback in "The Great Man Votes'' (1939) -- is somewhat cruelly forced to parody himself and his problems (drinking, financial issues) in what turned out to be his final screen performance before his death the following year. But the film does include the only record Barrrymore performing Hamlet, aside from an abortive screen test (Kyser plays Ophelia). The cast includes Patsy Kelly as Barrymore's agent, Lupe Velez briefly guesting on leave from RKO's "Mexican Spitfire'' series and May Robson (by then blind but still memorizing scripts that were read to her) reprising her role as Kyser's grandmother in her penultimate movie before her own death in 1942.
The Kyser repertoire, which tends heavily toward novelty songs, is delivered by his band and his regular singers, including Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Merwyn Bogue (who sports an early Beatles haircut as Ish Kabibble) -- and Ginny Simms in her final screen appearance with Kyser's band.
MGM chief Louis B. Mayer's reportedly unconsummated romanic obsession with Ms. Simms seems a plausible partial explanation for Tim Whelan's "Swing Fever'' (1943), a prime candidate for the oddest musical ever made by that studio. Once again accorded star billing, Kyser for the only time isn't playing himself, but a composer with hypnotic powers who fight promoter William Gargan employs on behalf of client Nat Pendleton. Kyser ends up leading his real-life band and singers, but without Simms, who in this film is replaced by MGM starlet Marilyn Maxwell. Also on hand are Lena Horne, Tommy Dorsey and an unbilled Ava Gardner as a secretary.
Kyser, who toured extensively with the USO during World War II, returned to playing himself in two more RKO vehicles not yet on DVD, "Around the World'' and "My Favorite Spy,'' and had cameo appearances in MGM's "Thousands Cheer'' and "Broadway Canteen.''
His final acting appearance, again as "himself," was in "Carolina Blues'' (1944), recently released by the recently renamed Sony Pictures Choice Collection (formerly known as Screen Classics by Demand and Columbia Classics) MOD program through the Warner Archive and other websites. Ms. Simms' successor as the band's girl singer, Georgia Carroll, appears briefly as herself. In real life, she retired after her marriage to Kyser. In the movie, though she marries a serviceman and is replaced by Ann Miller in this pleasing bit of fluff. Comic honors go to Victor Moore, who appears as six members of the same family, and the best number teams Harold Nicholas and the Four Step Brothers.
Olive Films' extensive mining of Paramount's post-1950 film library has turned up a gem in Mitchell Leisen's "No Man of Her Own'' (1951), based on a Cornell Woolrich story that was re-filmed in France in 1983 with Nathalie Baye under its original title "I Married a Dead Man.'' (Paramount previously used "No Man of Her Own'' as the title of an unrelated 1932 film that turned out to be the only teaming of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard).
Barbara Stanwyck has one of her best roles as an abandoned pregnant woman who is mistaken for another mom-to-be after a train crash that occurs while trying on the other woman's wedding ring. The family of the dead woman's husband, who have conveniently never met his wife, take in Stanwyck and help her raise the child as romance blossoms with the dead man's brother (John Lund). Stanwyck's struggles with her guilt over the impersonation, and then the sleazy father of her child (Lyle Bettger) turns up with a blackmail demand.
Even more than another Stanwyck noir classic from this era, "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers'' requires suspension of disbelief for its wilder plot twists, but it's well worth the effort. Stylist Leisen's only venture into film noir is full of arresting moments -- I've never seen a body disposed of more artfully -- and, as Dan Callahan notes in his recent book on Stanwyck and her films, there's loads of gay subtext. Most interesting, Stanwyck took her character's name from her personal assistant, who some believe was also her lesbian lover.
Today's Warner Archive Collection releases include a quartet of Lon Chaney silents, among them three coveted chillers directed by his frequent collaborator Tod Browning: "The Black Bird'' (1926) with the Man of a Thousand Faces in a dual role opposite Owen Moore and Renee Adoree; "West of Zanzibar'' (1928), an earlier version of the lurid melodrama "Kongo'' co-starring Lionel Barrymore; and "Where East is East'' (1929) with Lupe Velez. Chaney drops the heavy makeup for his most famous straight role, as a tough sergeant in "Tell It to the Marines'' (1926) co-starring William Haines and Eleanor Boardman.
WAC is also reissuing these out-of-print swashbucklers: William Keighley's "The Prince and the Pauper'' (1937) starring Errol Flynn, Billy and Bobby Mauch and Claude Rains; Victor Saville's "Kim'' (1950) with Errol Flynn and Dean Stockwell; George Sidney's "Scaramouche'' (1952) with Stewart Granger, Eleanor Parker and Janet Leigh; and the Camelot-themed "Knights of the Round Table'' (1953) starring Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner and Mel Ferrer.
After an absence of several weeks, the WAC websites is now again taking pre-orders for upcoming manufactured on demand releases, including an intriguing quintet supervised by David O. Selznick during his tenure at RKO that will drop on May 22. They are George Archainbaud's "State's Attorney'' (1932) starring John Barrymore as a crooked lawyer opposite Helen Twelvetrees and William "Stage'' Boyd; William Seiter's "Is My Face Red'' (1932), also with Ms. Twelvetrees, and Ricardo Cortez playing a Walter Winchell clone; Dudley Murphy's "Sport Parade'' (1932) a football yarn starring Joel McCrea, William Gargan, and in his feature debut, Robert Benchley; Gregory LaCava's "Age of Consent'' (1932) with Dorothy Wilson and Richard Cromwell; and Ralph Ince's "Lucky Devils'' (1933) starring a pre-Hopalong Cassidy William ("Screen'') Boyd and Gargan as stuntmen. Also being taken are pre-orders for the June 6 release of "Back From Eternity'' (1956), John Farrow's remake of his own classic (still not-on-DVD) "Five Came Back'' (1939) with a cast that includes Anita Ekberg, Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger, Gene Barry, Fred Clark and Beulah Bondi.
The latest announcement from the TCM Vault Collection's licensing arrangement with Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is "The Columbia Pictures Pre-Code Collection,'' scheduled for July 2. The five titles to be distributed through TCM's website and Movies Unlimited include pair of Barbara Stanwyck vehicles, Lionel Barrymore's "Ten Cents a Dance'' (1931) with Ricardo Cortez and Nick Grinde's "Shopworn'' (1932) with Regis Toomey; as well as blonde bombshells Carole Lombard in Edward Buzzell's "Virtue'' (1932) opposite Pat O'Brien and Jean Harlow in William Beaudine's "Three Wise Girls'' (1932) with Mae Clarke. Rounding out the set is John Wayne's only starring role at Columbia, the uber-obscure "Arizona'' (1931) with Laura LaPlante. Title and setting notwithstanding, this is not a western; it was reissued as "Men Are Like That.''
Twilight Time, the boutique label that licenses catalogue titles from 20th Century Fox and Sony for limited-edition pressed Blu-ray releases sold online, has some great ones coming up: Fritz Lang's "The Big Heat'' (1953) with Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame and Lee Marvin is scheduled on May 8, along with Henry Levin's "Journey to the Center of the Earth'' (1959), a splendid Jules Verne adaptation with the unlikely team of James Mason and Pat Boone. For June 12, Twilight Time has the never-on-DVD "The Wayward Bus'' (1957), a John Steinberg adaptation starring Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield and Dan Dailey.
The label's summer offerings include Charles Vidor's classic musical "Cover Girl'' (1944) starring Rita Hayworth and Gelly and Ken Annakin's all-star "Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines or How I Flew from London to Paris in 25 hours 11 minutes'' (1965), both on July 10. On Aug. 14, Twilight Time will release George Sidney's "Bye Bye Birdie'' (1963) with Dick Van Dyke, Janet Leigh and Ann-Margret; and Blake Edwards' "High Time'' (1960), a never-on-DVD Bing Crosby musical (he appears in drag in one scene) co-starring Fabian and Tuesday Weld.