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DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Cult Camp Classics Vol. 4: Historical Epics (1 Viewer)

Ken_McAlinden

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Cult Camp Classics Vol. 4: Historical Epics
The Prodigal (1955)/Land of the Pharaohs (1955)/The Colossus of Rhodes (1961)

Studio: Warner Brothers

Year: 1957-1961

Rated: Unrated

Film Length: Various

Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

Subtitles: English, French, English SDH

Release Date: June 26, 2007
For the fourth of four entries in Warner's "Cult Camp Classics" series of releases, they have treated us to three historical epics, all of which have never been on DVD before. Two of the films are from heralded directors working outside of the genres for which they are best known. One is a Cecil B. De Mille wannabe misfire from MGM. All look like they were very expensive.

The Films

The Prodigal (1955 - MGM - 112 minutes)

Directed By: Richard Thorpe

Starring: Lana Turner, Edward Purdom, Louis Calhern, Audrey Dalton, James Mitchell, Neville Brand

First, and closest to actual camp, comes Richard Thorpe's MGM production of "The Prodigal". The story, extrapolated greatly from the parable of The Prodigal Son as told by Jesus in the Gospel of St. Luke, centers on the character of Micah (Purdom), the second son of a devout Jewish family. Micah is generous of spirit and with his money which is demonstrated early when he rescues a runaway slave, Asham (Mitchell) by purchasing his freedom from the cruel guard, Rhakim (Brand) who is hunting him down with the intent to kill him. Micah's future appears to be secure when a marriage is arranged with the lovely Ruth (Dalton), but when, during a trip to the city of Damascus with his older brother Jaram (Dehner), he lays eyes on the beautiful Samarra (Turner), high priestess of the pagan god Astarte, he finds himself a man obsessed. Taking his portion of his inheritance from his father, Eli (Hampden- who died shortly after the film was released) , he moves to the city and attempts to have Samarra for his own. Little does he suspect that he has already run afoul of Nahreeb (Calhern), the high priest of the pagan god Baal, the man from whom Asham has escaped. Nahreeb exploits Micah's interest in Samarra to tempt him away from his faith, trick him into incurring unpayable debts, and ultimately enslave him. At a low point, Asham finds strength in the re-affirmation of his faith, but wonders if he may be too late.

A lot of very talented veterans and craftsmen at MGM contributed their efforts to this film, but the final result appears garish and not particularly well assembled. The wide shots designed to show off the expensive sets, really just convey how the foreground elements are not particularly well integrated with the background matte paintings. The costumes are very detailed, but have a "just off the rack" crispness to them that destroys any sense of verisimilitude. The set-pieces involving crowds do not fill the screen like the more jaw-dropping epics, making one wonder if they promoted the film with posters proclaiming a "cast of dozens". One particular action sequence involving a vulture attacking a left-for-dead Micah is laughably awful enough to modern eyes to qualify the film as camp on its own. Furious quick cut editing, no doubt intended to make the struggle more exciting and hide any deficiencies in the fake bird, instead make every insert shot of the rubber vulture or its claws seem like an Ed Woodian punch-line to a kitschy joke.

As much as the above synopsis conveys the plot, the film is really about the objectification of Lana Turner's figure, which is the only element of the production that comes across particularly well. The very heavily jeweled outfit she wears during her high priestess ceremonies was so revealing that press materials for the film actually had to airbrush underpants onto her figure. The ceremonies themselves give Turner an opportunity to parade in her trademark "catwalk model with all the time in the world" manner, which gives the audience an extra long gander at the goods on display.

The dialog is probably no worse than one would get in a Cecil B. De Mille biblical epic, but Purdom lacks the strong leading man presence of a Charlton Heston, or even a Victor Mature, necessary to sell it to an audience. As the central villain, Calhern is suitably dislikeable, but the script rarely allows him to interact with Purdom, robbing their final conflict of much of its impact. Neville Brand's character of Rhakim represents the actual physical threat from Calhern's Nahreeb. This, coupled with make-up and costume that suggest an orc from a fantasy film, gives him a proto-James Bond henchman vibe. Speaking of Bond villains, probably the most entertaining character role is the streetwise beggar Carmish as played by future "Dr. No", Joseph Wiseman. I think I would have rather seen a movie about him than any of the main characters in this film.

For anyone who aspires to have their stories adapted for Hollywood films, "The Prodigal" should be used as a cautionary example along with the accompanying question: Do you really expect Hollywood to respect your story and themes when even Jesus and St. Luke are subject to "re-imagining"?

Land of the Pharaohs (1955 - Warner Bros - 105 minutes)

Directed By: Howard Hawks

Starring: Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins, Dewey Martin, Alexis Minotis, James Robertson Justice, Luisella Boni, Sydney Chaplin

"Land of the Pharaohs" tells the epic story of Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (Hawkins). After returning from several successful military campaigns with enormous coffers of treasure from his conquests, he becomes obsessed with preparing for his "second life". Khufu and his friend and High Priest Hamar (Minotis), commission an enslaved architect, Vashtar (Justice), to design a pyramid tomb that will become impregnable once the Pharaoh and his treasure are laid to rest inside. Knowing that due to his knowledge of the pyramid's secrets he will not be allowed to live after the Pharaoh is entombed, Vashtar agrees to the task on the condition that his people will be freed upon completion of the construction. The monumental task takes place over a period spanning more than a decade, over which time Vashtar's sight begins to fail, requiring him to secretly enlist the help of his son, Senta (Martin). In the meantime, Khufu takes a second wife, Nellifer (Collins), a Princess from Cyprus who ruthlessly plots behind his back for her own advancement, even if it means that Khufu may have need of his tomb at an unnaturally early date.

Howard Hawks' "Land of the Pharaohs" is something of a curiosity for fans of the director. It represents his only attempt at the historical epic genre, and is also his only film released in CinemaScope (as relayed in the Peter Bogdonavich commentary accompanying this release, Hawks came to the conclusion that if the CinemaScope ratio were really that great, more painters would have used it). The opening of the film is atypically dull by Hawks standards, with a parade preceding the arrival of the conquering Pharaoh that seems to run on forever. Things pick up considerably after that, though, as the film quickly launches into its plot with a storytelling economy that is refreshingly uncharacteristic of the genre. The subsequent instances where Hawks does take the time for on-screen spectacle are dramatically appropriate and suitably impressive, making use of a literal cast of thousands and a number of Egyptian locations that add immeasurably to the production value.

The film's chief failing is in the unrelatability of its characters. The most relatable and sympathetic character in the story is James Robinson Justice's Vashtar, but the film instead puts most of its focus on Khufu. Jack Hawkins acquits himself well, but it is hard to identify with an all-powerful Pharaoh who sees himself as divine, and the writers, including William Faulkner (the epic four minute theatrical trailer proclaims "From the Pen of Nobel Prize Winning..."), Harold Jack Bloom, and Harry Kurnitz, never find a way to solve this problem. Joan Collins is vampy fun as the Pharaoh's proud, scheming, second wife, but without the audience's sympathies in Khufu's corner, it becomes difficult to despise her to the degree that the the filmmakers intended.

On a technical level, the film is suitably spectacular with elaborate sets and locations exploited perfectly by the cinematography and a typically big and brassy score by Dmitri Tiomkin. The method for setting the pyramid stones posited by Hawks and his screenwriters seems plausible and plays well visually on screen. Hawks did not attempt to work his trademark overlapping dialog into this period piece, but he did direct and edit the dialog tightly with a much more rat-a-tat pace than is typical for such films. This effectively prevents some of the portentous, stuffy, and even downright silly dialog typical of the genre from hanging in the air too long. While included by Warner Home Video in its "Cult Camp Classics" line, the only element of the film that flirts with campiness is the amount of face and body make-up applied to some of the actors, especially Collins, to make them look non-European.

Note: Movie trivia fans will appreciate the use of the famous "Willhelm scream" in the scenes where the Pharaoh's guards execute some men by throwing them into an alligator pit (The scream is the first sound heard on the disc's fifth chapter). The use of this sound effect saw a resurgence in the late 70s when sound designer Ben Burtt found it on a tape reel labeled: "Man being eaten by alligator". The sound effect was actually recorded a few years earlier, but it is used for exactly that purpose here. The ubiquitous Willhelm scream has since appeared in the mix of many of the biggest action films of the past 30 years including entries in the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Spider-Man series.

The Colossus of Rhodes (1961 - 128 minutes)

Directed By: Sergio Leone

Starring: Rory Calhoun, Lea Massari, Georges Marchal, Conrado San Martín, Georges Rigaud, Roberto Camardiel

Sergio Leone's first on-screen directorial credit, "The Colossus of Rhodes", tells a story surrounding the construction, use, and ultimate destruction of the title monument to Apollo that guarded the entrance to the harbor of Rhodes as experienced by Darios (Calhoun), a Greek warrior visiting his uncle Lissipu (Rigaud) on holiday. Darios would just as soon stay out of politics and chase beautiful woman such as Diala (Massari), the daughter of the Colossus' designer, but through circumstances beyond his control, he finds himself in the middle of a plot by Phoenician agent Thar (San Martin) to overthrow the island and its corpulent and corrupt leader, King Serse (Camardiel). His efforts to avoid trouble are further hindered when he is mistaken as a spy while wandering through secret passages in search of Diala, and courted for his fighting skills by anti-Serse rebels lead by Peliocles (Marchal). Ensuing mayhem involves alliances, betrayals, torture, gladiatorial arenas, daring escapes, and all manner of entertaining violence consistent with the tradition of the Italian peplum genre.

"The Colossus of Rhodes" is one of the better sword and sandal epics to emerge from Italy at the height of their popularity. While it does not have the production values or sophistication of Hollywood films such as "Ben-Hur", "Quo Vadis", or even "Land of the Pharaohs", it is very entertaining on its own terms with a rousing action or gruesome torture sequence occurring just about every time one begins to think too much about the overly complicated and borderline nonsensical plot. While the film is, for the most part, an exciting and compelling action-adventure story with (possibly too many) elements of political intrigue, the narrative is ultimately undermined by a climax that features its protagonist in a far-too passive mode with bad weather and anonymous extras doing most of the important fighting for him.

Leone both heeds the sword and sandal genre conventions and bends them to his own ends. While he does retain an American star to play the lead, instead of going with a Steve Reeves-style muscle-man as was the tradition, he instead casts late-cycle B-cowboy start Rory Calhoun. Leone even cheekily tips his hat to Alfred Hitchcock via his reluctant protagonist who finds himself drawn into a plot culminating in a battle on top of a huge sculpted head that echoes both the climaxes of "North by Northwest" and "Saboteur".

The film was photographed in the "Super Totalscope" process which is a close European cousin of the American CinemaScope process. By 1961, the good folks at Panavision had made substantial improvements in their anamorphic lenses that significantly reduced or eliminated distortion effects that were noticeable in early CinemaScope productions. These advances are nowhere to be seen here, resulting in similar "mumps" effects and distortion on camera pans that one would see from mid-1950s CinemaScope optics.

The film will seem campy to American audiences not tolerant of the dubbing, tin-eared dialog, plot contrivances, and really short tunics, but it probably does not deserve to have the term applied as much as many other entries in the genre such as the Steve Reeves Hercules films.

The Video

All films are presented in 16:9 enhanced color transfers.

"The Prodigal" features a generally pleasing transfer rendered very close to its 2.55:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Colors appear slightly faded, with little unwelcome manipulation in the video domain to punch them up. There is light grain throughout and occasional film damage noticeable as bright spots on the screen, suggesting that it was derived from a lightly worn positive element, possibly due to unavailability of the original negative. There is a noticeable drop in quality during optical shots such as fades between scenes.

"Land of the Pharaohs" is presented at an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1, slightly cropped from its original ratio of 2.55:1. It has comparable levels of grain to "The Prodigal" with similar, but even more noticeable issues during the optical fades and composite effects shots. As I have seen in other "Warnercolor" presentations from the era, halos around high contrast edges are present during these opticals, likely due to inferior dupe stock and/or bad lab work. The color looks occasionally tilted to the red/orange end of the spectrum as if it were manipulated a bit too heavily in the digital video domain.

"The Colossus of Rhodes" is the grainiest transfer of the bunch, and the compression occasionally has trouble keeping up with it causing some digital artifacts noticeable in bright areas of the screen. Optical shots show even more grain, with ringing artifacts present similar to those observed in "Land of the Pharaohs". All of that aside, the color looks terrific and the presentation is far superior to that of any European film I have seen in this genre on video, let alone any previous version of this title.

The Audio

In the theatrical trailer for "The Prodigal" as presented on the DVD extras, there is a card near the end proclaiming its release in "optical Stereophonic Sound". This DVD presentation does that one better by presenting the film in true stereo via a Dolby Digital 2.0 track encoded for Pro-Logic surround at 192 kbps. In terms of fidelity and dimensionality, "The Prodigal" has the best sound quality of the set.

"Land of the Pharaohs" is also presented via a 2-channel Pro-Logic encoded 192 kbps track. It falls short of the quality of "The Prodigal" mainly because of distortion and noise in the dialog, which appears to have been recorded on an optical rather than a magnetic track.

"The Colossus of Rhodes" is presented via a Dolby Digital 1.0 mono track encoded at 192 kbps. Dialog synchronization varies since all of the dialog is dubbed as was the practice for Italian films in the 60s (and well into at least the 80s). Noise is kept in check for an overall pleasing experience.

The Extras

Each film comes with a theatrical trailer and a commentary track. All of the trailers are presented in 4:3 video letterboxed to 2.35:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound except for "Land of the Pharaohs", which is enhanced for 16:9 displays.

The commentaries put me in the mind of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Representing the "too hot" Papa Bear viewpoint is film historian Dr. Drew Caspar commenting on "The Prodigal". Listening to Caspar's expressions of admiration for various aspects of the production, I began to think that I was missing something or possibly had not given the film a fair shake. I snapped out of this stupor right around the time he praised the special effects and editing of the "rubber vulture attack" sequence. That being said, his commentary is extremely well researched and thorough, and by the end you will feel like you have just taken a college course on "The Prodigal" complete with the moments where you sense that your Professor is reading way too much into the film's subtext (like when he stretches a bit to liken Calhern's robes to those of a Klansman and suggests that the film was attempting the mirror the civil rights movement - Extending the analogy, I presume the depiction of the slave revolt would be advocating the violent overthrow of the white establishment!). To be fair, in order to conduct the impressive amount of research and organization that clearly went into this commentary, I imagine that one would have to develop an affection for, if not outright fall in love with, the subject at hand, and Caspar is always realistic about the film's reception upon release and place in the pantheon of historical epics.

Representing the "too cold" Mama Bear viewpoint is Director Peter Bogdonavich commenting on "Land of the Pharaohs". Bogdonavich offers analysis of certain aspects of the film that did not work, which is welcome, but he also spends way too much time reminding us about what is wrong with the film in a tone that occasionally comes across as dismissive. When he is not doing this, though, he has some interesting observations to make about the film's production and its director. Best of all, he has several recorded interview segments with Howard Hawks spread throughout the commentary. As the commentary progresses, gaps become a bit larger and his comments range a bit further afield of the movie itself.

Finally, representing the Baby Bear "just right" viewpoint is film Historian Sir Christopher Frayling. Frayling's encyclopedic knowledge of popular Italian cinema in general and Sergio Leone in particular make him an excellent choice to provide commentary on Leone's only on-screen directorial credit in the peplum genre. He never gives the impression that the film is more or less than it is, provides insight and history on most of the key creative talents involved in making the film, and has a dryly humorous , but not dismissive, tone when discussing the film's shortcomings or dated elements. I have not listened to his commentaries on the recently re-released Sergio Leone westerns from MGM, but I remembered that he had a tendency to lapse into narration on the track he recorded for Paramount's DVD of "Once Upon a Time in the West", and was prepared for the worst. My concerns were largely unfounded, however, as he seems to have improved greatly in this respect. There are still instances where he describes the action on-screen, but it is usually in an analytical context where he is pointing out where the film is following or subverting genre conventions.

Packaging

All of the films are packaged in standard Amaray-style cases with cover art derived from vintage promotional art. The cases are in turn enclosed in a thin cardboard box with a cover image showing a montage of the film cover art. The text on the back of the box attempts to be humorous in keeping with the "Camp Classic" theme, but is mostly groan-worthy. I will, however, admit to cracking a smile at the description of "The Prodigal" as being "Filmed in Sinemascope!"

Summary

While applying the term "Camp Classics" to these films may not be fair, this fourth volume is a welcome collection of action-filled historical epics and a must for Howard Hawks and Sergio Leone completists. All of the films receive decent audio/video transfers, although the color timing seems a bit off on "Land of the Pharaohs", and compression artifacts occasionally smear the grain patterns on "The Colossus of Rhodes". All three films receive interesting and informative commentaries of a scholarly nature.

Regards,
 

Simon Howson

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You are right that Land of the Pharaohs seems to be cropped. The image is about 851 x 357 pixels, which equals an aspect ratio of about 2.38:1.

Of course it is impossible to say if the image is actually framed properly without a sample of an original print.

Could it be possible that W.B. used an optical soundtrack based element? The DVD image isn't up to the same standards of other W.B. films released in 1955, for example East of Eden and Love Me or Leave Me.

Perhaps they used exactly the same element that they used for previous video transfers, rather than going back to the camera negative, and making a new I.P. from that. The fact there is no 5.1 audio suggets they didn't want to go all out on this film. Well, either that or the 4-track sound is lost. But considering that the Camp Classics series was a budget line, I doubt they went back to negatives.

I really enjoyed the film! I guess if I didn't actually like it then I wouldn't be so dissapointed by the cropped image.

This was captured from the first scene of the film, and reduced to 75% of its original size.

 

Joe Caps

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I am really upset. Now that we have a system that CAN reproduce originall four channel stereo, studios still give us 2.0 mixdowns fo the four track- why?
 

Simon Howson

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I agree with you, and I'm also upset that the framing is closer to 2.55:1.

My guess is that W.B. saw this as a budget release, and hence didn't go back to original elements for picture and sound. If anyone has the laserdisc it would be interesting to see how similar the framing is, and / or if the transfer has damage in similar places which would suggest the DVD is from the same element.

Perhaps the fact this film suffers from the reputation of - at best - being considered an interesting failure stopped them from investing more time and money for this release?

Or maybe there is a simpler explanation; maybe the 4 track audio is lost, and the negative in need of a complete restoration, rather than a cheaper preservation?

But my guess is this is a similar situation to The Naked Spur; W.B. have just used the same interpositive that was created in the early 1990s, which means the transfer isn't anywhere near what a full restoration or preservation could look like - just look at all the Fox CinemaScope films from 1955, especially The House of Bamboo, The Virgin Queen, White Feather, and The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing. They are all far better transfers that what W.B. has delivered here.
 

Simon Howson

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Yes, it is region 4, and also region 2 (the discs are exactly the same).

Look for it at Big W, I've seen it for around $13. The transfer quality is stunning.

Regarding Land of the Pharaohs, I just noticed on IMDB that the duration of the Canadian version is substantially longer, it says "Canada:144 min / UK:105 min".

Is this just an standard IMDB inaccuracy, or was there a longer roadshow version?
 

Ken_McAlinden

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I am convinced that it is an error that has propagated through other "wiki" sources, but I would be very interested in any substantiating information that would prove me wrong.

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Ruz-El

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Great review! Very thorough. I watched this set over the weekend, and mostly enjoyed them all. The Prodigal was a bit of a chore. I started the commentary, and have to admit that I found it hillarious. I think it'll make the whole picture more entertaining.

Colossus was my favorite, it had more action. :P Pharohs was a bit of a surprise. I still have the other 3 to watch. I'm going to start on the terrorized travelers tonight or tomorrow.

I don't know why I'm watching the sets in reverse order :P
 

Ken_McAlinden

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Trivial Update: I saw "Ratatouille" over the 4th of July holiday, and noticed that "Lifted", the Pixar short that precedes it, concludes with a "Wilhelm Scream". It was the first film ever directed by reknowned sound designer Gary Rydstrom who has never been shy about using it before.

If you ever figure it out, maybe you could explain to me why I am reviewing them in 3, 4, 1, 2 order. :)

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john a hunter

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LAND was originally with a much longer opening sequence-the triumphal return of the Pharoah. Apparently this was cut down after the opening.You could always hear the cuts in the music cues.I'm looking forward to seeing if any of this has been put back when my copy arrives. Probably not.
 

Ken_McAlinden

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As I mentioned in the review, the opening procession seems to drag on forever. If it was any longer than that in an earlier cut of the film, I pity the audience. :)

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Paul_Scott

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so far, out of the three sets I picked up (skipped the sci-fi one) I've seen Skyjacked, Hot Rods, Big Cube, Trog, Colossus, and Pharoahs.
Pharoahs has been far and away the most interesting and entertaining for me- but also has by far the worst PQ of any of them. Poor compression, frequent halos, manipulated looking contrast- the pic looks to have been filtered to get down the grain so it would compress easily, and yet at the same time it looks like they went in and applied some artifical sharpening to compensate for this new softness.
In comparision, I thought Colossus looked excellant. Very natural with very little haloing or digital manipulation. I wish LOTP could have looked this nice.

Has that film had huge issues over the years in regards to its original elements? It seems to share a lot of the same negative attributes of another disc that Warner poorly handled from the same era- Giant.
 

Douglas R

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I love that opening procession set to Dimitri Tiomkin's marvellous music. In fact the scene's not long enough for me. There's no accounting for taste.....!
 

Ken_McAlinden

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"Warnercolor" lab work is the common factor, but I don't think that is the major problem with "...Pharaohs." "...Pharaohs" has some nasty halos during optical fades and effects shots, but it does not use the dupe stock for entire long take shots before and after the optical fades like in "Giant." It was too grainy for me to consider it to be filtered, and I do not think the halos were a result of processing in the video domain. I honestly think a lot of the problem with "...Pharaohs" stems from nothing more than wonky color timing, not unlike the recent 2-disc special edition release of "Rio Bravo".

By the way, while I enjoyed "...Pharaohs" quite a lot, by far the best film of the twelve "Cult Camp Classics" releases is "Caged", and I was pleased to see that it received an outstanding transfer. My review for Vol. 2 will be up in a few days, but do not overlook that particular movie as it is an Oscar-caliber film with a terrific DVD presentation sandwiched in a box set between two jaw-dropping turkeys.

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Matt Hough

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I agree completely. I watched it today, and I was excited by the first-rate presentation it received. But for me, it wasn't camp in any way; just a wonderful melodrama in the typical tough Warner style.
 

Corey3rd

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I loved the vulture scene in The Prodigal. If only the ministers had spoken about the battle with the vulture, I'd be more attentive in church.

The mixing of real with fake vulture would serve Richard Thorpe well when he had to make Fun in Acapulco with Elvis since the singer didn't leave the Hollywood studio. He'd have to learn how to work with the real Elvis, rear projection, body double Elvis and stunt double Elvis in scenes.
 

Matt Hough

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I thought Dr. Drew Casper's girgling commentary for THE PRODIGAL was funnier than the film. I did appreciate the information he offered, but to go into such raptures over Lana's walk each time or the first jump into the sacrificial pit which he oversold was pretty campy itself.
 

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