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HTF DVD REVIEW: Leading Ladies Collection: Vol. 2



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#1 of 1 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

Ken_McAlinden

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  • Join Date: Feb 20 2001
  • Real Name:Kenneth McAlinden
  • LocationLivonia, MI USA

Posted January 28 2008 - 03:35 PM

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Leading Ladies Collection: Vol. 2
I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), Up the Down Staircase(1967), Rich and Famous(1981), Shoot the Moon(1982)
The Films

I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955 – MGM -- 119 minutes)

Directed By: Daniel Mann

Starring: Susan Hayward, Richard Conte, Eddie Albert, Jo Van Fleet, Ray Danton

In the musical biopic I'll Cry Tomorrow, Susan Hayward plays singer/actress Lillian Roth. After a prologue detailing Roth's childhood under the upbringing of her aggressive stage mother, Katie (Van Fleet), the film follows the trajectory of her personal and professional life in the wake of the death of her fiancé and childhood sweetheart, David (Danton). Programmed with a "show must go on" mentality but personally devastated, she turns to drinking as a means of coping, gradually descending into alcoholism. Her life is further complicated when she marries Tony Bardeman (Conte), a man who seems to want to help her deal with her alcoholism, but proves to be cruel and abusive. Professionally ruined and suicidally depressed after several failed attempts at going straight, she takes a last stab at redemption by attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Susan Hayward gives a bravura performance as Roth. Hayward's breakthrough Oscar –nominated performance in 1947's Smash-Up was also as an alcoholic singer (and also featured Eddie Albert in a supporting role). While that film pushed the envelope of the Production Code with its depiction of excessive drinking, I'll Cry Tomorrow was even more frank about the effects of alcoholism coupled with an abusive relationship and the accompanying personal debasement of its lead character. It is also much more realistic about the way that alcoholism can start as a response to personal issues, but eventually becomes an overwhelming problem all by itself. In the earlier film, Hayward's character's drinking problems were more or less instantly solved when she learned that her husband had not been unfaithful. This unusual frankness for a Hollywood film, let alone a musical was in keeping with both the tone of Roth's autobiography from which the film was adapted as well as the leanings of MGM studio boss Dore Schary towards more socially relevant motion pictures.

Around the time of the film's production, Hayward's own rocky personal life had resulted in an intentional overdose of sleeping pills. (I have read conflicting accounts, some indicating it occurred during production and others indicating it occurred prior to production and contributed to the early termination of her contract with Fox). Viewers aware of the incident were likely captivated by the parallels between Hayward's personal drama and those she was acting out in the role of Roth. Whether informed by her personal trials or not, Hayward's performance is both brutally honest and empathetic. Also noteworthy was the fact that Hayward did all of her own singing, having been dubbed in her previous musical role for With a Song in My Heart. She was rewarded for her troubles with her fourth Oscar nomination, although she ironically lost out to Anna Magnani in The Rose Tatoo, another picture from Director Daniel Mann.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966 – Eden Productions/Warner Bros. - 95 minutes)

Directed By: Fielder Cook

Starring: Joanne Woodward, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Paul Ford, Charles Bickford, Burgess Meredith, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Middleton

In A Big Hand for the Little Lady married couple Meredith (Fonda) and Mary (Woodward) stumble into a saloon on their way out west. It just so happens that the saloon is hosting the annual no holds barred poker game between the town's five wealthiest citizens (Robards, Bickford, McCarthy, Middleton, and Qualen). Sending Mary off to have their wagon wheel repaired Meredith talks his way into the poker game. By the time Mary returns, she is shocked to learn that Meredith has bet their entire life savings, and it may all be lost on one hand. Overcome by stress, Meredith is felled by a heart condition and remanded to the care of the eccentric Doctor Scully (Meredith). Mary is left with no choice but to assume her husband's place at the table, but if she cannot figure out how to raise enough money to call the hand, she will have to forfeit everything.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady betrays its teleplay origins by some obvious padding of its running time, especially during its protracted final act. Other than that, it is a lot of fun with Woodward capably picking up the baton from Fonda and carrying the film through its second half. Even with strong anchoring performances from its leads, this kind of comedy lives and dies on the strength of its supporting performances. Fortunately, this film is particularly well cast. The supporting characters including all of the card players, Meredith's prickly physician, and Paul Ford's pompous banker, are drawn broadly enough to be entertaining without degenerating into cheap caricature. As much recent interest as there has been in televised professional poker, attempts to make scenes of poker dramatically interesting in films such as Casino Royale and Lucky You have met with mixed results, but A Big Hand for the Little Lady proves to be an exception worth checking out.

Up the Down Staircase (1967 – Park Place/Warner Bros. - 124 minutes)

Directed By: Robert Mulligan

Starring: Sandy Dennis, Patrick Bedford, Eileen Heckart, Ruth White, Jean Stapleton, Sorrell Booke, Roy Poole, Florence Stanley, Vinnette Carroll, Janice Mars, Loretta Leversee

Up the Down Staircase, an adaptation of the popular Bel Kaufman novel of the same name, features Sandy Dennis as rookie inner-city school teacher Sylvia Barrett. Any idealistic notions Barrett has about teaching are challenged from the word go. The film tracks Barrett's progress over her first year at the school encountering challenges including the paperwork-obsessed school bureaucracy, classroom discipline, strains of cynicism and apathy from her peers, and a number of issues specific to individual students. As the complications accumulate over the course of the film, Barrett's achieves some successes at reaching her highly distracted students, but a series of heartbreaking losses and a threat to her physical safety begin to shake her confidence that she is capable of persevering in the public school environment.

While the novel distinguished itself from other books on the same subject with its unusual episodic style, devoting a whole chapter, for instance, to nothing but excerpts from the "suggestion box", the film approaches things in a slightly more conventionally structured way. While this makes it similar to other films in the crusading teacher genre, it still holds up as one of the better entries in the field due to an excellent central performance from Dennis (hot on the heels of her Oscar-winning turn in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf") and a sense of verisimilitude derived from the use of actual teenage actors, a real high school building, and genuine New York locations.

Rich and Famous (1981 - MGM - 117 minutes)

Directed By: George Cukor

Starring: Jacqueline Bisset, Candice Bergen, David Selby, Hart Bochner, Steven Hill, Meg Ryan, Matt Lattanzi, Daniel Faraldo, Nicole Eggert

Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen play Liz Hamilton and Merry Noel Blake in a story of friendship that spans two decades. The film begins with a prologue where Merry Noel is running away from her college dormitory, aided by her best friend Liz, to elope with Doug Blake (Selby). The film picks up nearly a decade later in California where Merry has settled into her role as a wife to College Professor Doug and a mother to daughter Debby (Eggert as a child, Ryan when she is older). Liz, the author of an award winning first novel who has been struggling for years with her follow-up, visits Merry and Doug. Merry reveals that she has been working on a novel of her own, a thinly veiled account of the activities of her swanky Malibu neighbors. Liz agrees to show Merry's manuscript to her publisher, and as is usually the case in such sudsy drama, Merry's novel is a huge success which is followed by a string of extremely popular somewhat trashy novels. The film checks back in on Liz and Merry at different points over the next decade as Merry's marriage breaks down, Liz endures a number of unsuccessful romantic relationships, and Merry publishes a serious novel which is nominated for the same award Liz won for her first book. All the while, their decades old friendship is put to the test by personal and professional conflicts and misunderstandings.

Easily the least impressive film in this collection, Rich and Famous is at least notable for being George Cukor's final film as a director. Cukor, who was a spry 81 at the time of the film's release, inherited the project from Robert Mulligan (coincidentally, the director of Up the Down Staircase)who had to leave due to scheduling conflicts resulting from delays due to the 1981 Writers Guild of America strike. While the film as scripted is a bit too much of a by the numbers soapy drama to ever be great, Cukor does manage to make a few fairly interesting scenes, and insures that his lead actresses emerge with their dignity intact. Candice Bergen overcomes a fairly thankless character, a not especially convincing southern accent, and the need to embody seemingly random behavior dictated by plot beats rather than logic, to somehow give one of her better performances.

While nominally focused on the friendship of Bisset's Liz and Bergen's Merry, the film is unbalanced by long stretches focusing exclusively on the personal travails of Liz independent of Merry, mostly involving sex with either unreliable and/or much younger men. Conversely almost all of Merry's personal issues are viewed from the perspective of Liz during events for which she is present. I am inclined to suspect that this structural weakness was not present in the play from which the film was adapted and that Bisset's participation as a producer contributed to the beefing up of her role. This structural weakness, coupled with some beyond-obvious symbolism such as a teddy bear representing Merry and Liz's friendship that actually gets torn apart during one of their squabbles, can make the film feel like a long haul for viewers with a low tolerance for "chick flick" clichés. A few scenes that are funny and entertaining in their own right, which I will not spoil here, do not amount to enough to excuse the film's more obvious flaws.

Shoot the Moon (1982 - MGM - 124 minutes)

Directed By: Alan Parker

Starring: Albert Finney, Diane Keaton, Karen Allen, Peter Weller, Dana Hill, Viveka Davis, Tracey Gold, Tina Yothers

In Alan Parker's Shoot To Moon, Albert Finney and Diane Keaton play George and Faith Dunlap, a married couple living in northern California with a family of four girls (Hill, Davis, Gold, and Yothers). As the film opens, George is preparing to receive a prestigious literary award, but it quickly becomes apparent that this professional high corresponds with a low point in his marriage. George has taken a mistress, Sandy (Allen), and his conversations with Faith consist mainly of passive aggressive sniping. The day after the award ceremony, following a particularly bitter argument, George announces he is leaving and finds that Faith has already packed his bags. The balance of the film concerns how George, Faith, and their daughters adapt to the changes in their lives brought on by their separation. Both of them find that where years of history and children are involved, there is no such thing as a clean break.

The history of this film's screenplay is a pretty interesting story on its own. Bo Goldman's script for a film about a divorcing couple called Switching, was one of his first attempts at writing for the big screen. It earned him a good deal of attention in Hollywood circles, and led to his offer to script One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, his breakthrough project. In subsequent years, he would rack up awards for penning films including Melvin and Howard and The Rose, but his calling card script for Switching remained unproduced. The planets finally aligned for the project in the early 1980s. Films such as 1979's Kramer vs. Kramer and 1980's Ordinary People disproved the notion that a story of a disintegrating family would be commercially unviable. On top of that, the interest of director Alan Parker, on something of a hot streak after Bugsy Malone, Midnight Express, and Fame probably went a long way towards easing the anxieties of studio heads. It was Parker who came up with the title Shoot the Moon, a reference to the card game "Hearts", which Goldman liked better than his original title.

The film proved commercially unsuccessful and was curiously overlooked by the Academy Awards, receiving not a single Oscar nomination despite excellent work turned in by high-profile talents Finney, Keaton, and Goldman. In addition to Finney and Keaton's very sensitive, finely modulated performances, the film benefits greatly from some wonderful work turned in by the juvenile actresses playing their daughters. Parker's work with young actors in Bugsy Malone and Fame is topped here as he elicits extremely natural performances from all four girls, particularly when they are sharing the screen together. To her credit, teenaged Dana Hill, playing the oldest daughter, more than holds her own with her senior counterparts in a number of the more heavily demonstrative emotional scenes in the movie. Peter Weller is good enough in a supporting role that I actually reconsidered my previously held opinion about his limited range as an actor.

Shoot the Moon works best during its more subdued moments when the actors are allowed to embody their characters' repressed doubts, frustrations, and self-loathing almost subconsciously. The film occasionally stumbles when it tries to create "big" moments such as an argument early in the film which, clichés-be-damned, Parker actually allows to devolve into plate smashing, and the somewhat excessive ending, the description of which would constitute a spoiler. That being said, one particularly harrowing scene, which involves Finney angrily confronting Keaton and then Hill, is one of the best in the whole film.

Parker dances close to the edge of unforgivable cheekiness when he has the kids singing along to the theme from "Fame" while riding in the car with their dad, but considering the number of kids their age in the early 80s who probably were also doing the same thing, I will forgive him the moment of self-aggrandizement.

The Video

All films in this collection are presented in transfers that take up the full 16:9 enhanced frame approximating their original theatrical aspect ratios.

The transfer for I'll Cry Tomorrow, the only black and white film in the collection, appears to be framed too tightly at the 16:9 ratio. I was watching via an LCD projector with no overscan, and feet and heads appeared to be uncomfortably cropped, especially during some of the choreographed musical numbers. The element used for transfer appears to be a couple of generations down from ideal, making it a bit grainy and soft. Compression is decent considering the amount of grain, and edge artifacts are minor to non-existent

The video presentation of A Big Hand for the Little Lady looks generally very good. Colors are frequently a bit muted, presumably by design. Detail is excellent, although blacks are sometimes a bit crushed in some of the film's many shadowy interiors.

The best way to describe the video transfer for Up the Down Staircase is that it appears to be a very good representation of a difficult film element. There are signs of a lot of wear and tear on the source film element with some reels looking much worse than others. It appears that through the miracles of careful wet gate printing and perhaps a little digital magic, they have managed to create a DVD presentation that looks more consistent and sharp than it has a right to be.

Rich and Famous is a near perfect presentation given that the source has a certain softness typical of 1980s film stocks. Damage to the source element is rarely apparent except during a handful of optical shots (usually involving on-screen titles). I noticed some very light edge ringing during a few scenes, but nothing pervasive.

Shoot the Moon has an intentionally grainy look, with a lot of pushed exposures with diffuse and blooming lights from windows and other visible source. This cinematographic style appears much influenced by Stanley Kubrick, but Parker and cinematographer/frequent collaborator Michael Seresin are fond of longer lenses. With that in mind, the transfer is very film-like. The compression sometimes has trouble rendering the grain, but this is not an issue from a reasonable viewing distance. A small amount of high contrast edge ringing is sometimes noticeable, particularly during certain exterior shots against a clear sky.

The Audio

All of the films are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks with no alternate language dubs. I'll Cry Tomorrow has a slightly higher level of audible hiss than the tracks for the other films, but the light level of noise reduction results in a track with excellent fidelity and few artifacts. The other tracks are all strong, with the two 80s films having noticeably better musical fidelity. Unfortunately, the dialog track for "Rich and Famous" suffers from a noticeable harshness/sibilance.

The Extras

I'll Cry Tomorrow comes with a number of vintage featurettes all relevant to the film itself. First up is Story Conference, a 1934 Vitaphone musical short starring the real Lillian Roth that runs twenty minutes and 22 seconds. It employs the overused gimmick of having a bunch of writers in a room pitching story ideas to Roth, which are then enacted as production numbers. Next up are excerpts from three episodes of the promotional TV show MGM Parade in which host George Murphy introduces clips from I'll Cry Tomorrow. They run ten minutes and 46 seconds if "Play All" is selected. The first clip features some scripted banter between Murphy and Susan Hayward before the clip is shown. The next extras is called 12/30/1955 Unique Meeting at the Premiere of "I'll Cry Tomorrow". It is a 41 second newsreel clip of a meeting between Susan Hayward and Lillian Roth at the film's premiere. 3/6/1956 Top Award for MGM Stars is a 43 second newsreel clip showing Susan Hayward being presented with the Look Magazine Award for actress of the year for her performance in I'll Cry Tomorrow and James Cagney receiving the actor of the year honor for his role in "Love Me or Leave Me". Finally, the film's three-minute theatrical trailer is presented in letterboxed 4:3 video.

A Big Hand for the Little Lady is presented on disc with no extras.

The only extra on the Up the Down Staircase disc is the film's four minute and 25 second theatrical trailer presented in 4:3 full frame video.

Rich and Famous is accompanied on disc by a vintage featurette called On Location with "Rich and Famous" which runs six minutes and 33 seconds. It is very much a promotional piece, but it features some behind the scenes footage of the film's production and a few comments from the stars and director. The two minute and 49 second theatrical trailer is also included, presented in 4:3 full frame video with a voiceover narration that sounds strangely amateurish.

Shoot the Moon comes with a screen specific audio commentary from Director Alan Parker and screen writer Bo Goldman. They discuss the long genesis of the project starting with Goldman's original script for "Switching". They are both very polite and deferential arguably to a fault. Not until near the end of the commentary track do they discuss any conflict between them during the production, and even then you have to read between the lines to get an idea about what its source was. There is additional discussion about topics such as casting and Parker's contributions to the script and story. Parker even speculates a bit about why the film took so long to come out on DVD, but does not mention the likely contributing factor of having to clear the rights for songs from The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, and Bob Seger. The film's theatrical trailer, running one minute and 32 seconds, is presented in 4:3 color video.

Packaging

As is the Warner Bros. Home Video custom, the films are packaged in standard Amaray-style cases with cover art reflecting original promotional art for the films. The cases are enclosed in a thin cardboard box with images of the featured leading ladies on the front and information about each film on the back with a pink and black color scheme.

Summary

With the rush of outstanding catalog releases from Warner Bros. before the 2007 holidays, it was easy to overlook this set. That would be a mistake, though; as it includes four outstanding films previously unreleased on DVD and one interesting misfire from a legendary director. All of the films feature strong performances from their lead actresses, and only Rich and Famous trades in clichés associated with the "Chick Flick" genre. Audio and video presentations are generally very good, but I'll Cry Tomorrow appears to be framed too tightly and Rich and Famous has some annoying dialog sibilance. The most interesting extras are a vintage short featuring the real Lillian Roth on I'll Cry Tomorrow and a commentary from director Alan Parker and screenwriter Bo Goldman on Shoot the Moon

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA