dvd review: Back To The 1950s

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, the last thing I wanted to see was a “serious” movie. I eagerly awaited each new Jerry Lewis comedy and Walt Disney release, and when the newly-reconstituted Three Stooges started making feature films I was first in line to see them. I sure wasn’t interested in Peyton Place or Suddenly, Last Summer! As a result, I’ve spent much of my adult life as a film buff catching up with movies of that period. I put off seeing some titles because I refused to watch widescreen films if they were panned and scanned on television, and waited for a big-screen revival.

Now, both Warner Bros. and MGM are digging into their vaults to release obscure and forgotten films of that period through dvd-on-demand; Warner at and MGM drawing mostly on the United Artists library for its Limited Edition Collection, available through a number—

—of online dealers at Most of these titles aren’t classics, although some of them were popular when they first came out. I’m just happy to be able to satisfy my longtime curiosity about them.

When Warner Archive released Westbound (1959) I realized it was the only collaboration between Randolph Scott and director Budd Boetticher that I hadn’t seen. It’s also one of the few that wasn’t written by Burt Kennedy, who after penning the terrific Seven Men From Now (1956)—his first feature credit, by the way—went on to provide the star and director with sharp, original scripts for The Tall T, Buchanan Rides Alone, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station. These are the films that are properly celebrated today, even though they were all but ignored in the 1950s. There’s nothing wrong with Westbound; Scott is solid as always, but it’s more conventional than the Kennedy pictures, as is Andrew Duggan’s villainy. Even the locations aren’t terribly interesting. Warners veteran Henry Blanke produced, from a screenplay by Berne Giler, a prolific writer of episodic television shows (including such Warners Western series as Bronco, Cheyenne and Lawman). Scott has two leading ladies: Virginia Mayo, his onetime flame who’s now married to empire-builder Duggan, and Karen Steele, the loyal wife of Civil War veteran Michael Dante who clearly has feelings for Scott, as he puts his life on the line to bring law and order to an unruly Colorado town. It’s slickly made and perfectly watchable; it just doesn’t measure up to the other work Scott did for this talented director. (Boetticher disowned the film, explaining in his autobiography that he made it as a favor to Scott, who owed Warner Bros. one more picture on his contract.)

By the time MGM made Meet Me in Las Vegas in 1955, musicals were on the wane, and this Joe Pasternak concoction is a desperate attempt to keep the genre alive at Metro. Dan Dailey plays a rancher who comes to Las Vegas once a year and loses all his money. Cyd Charisse is a classical ballet dancer whose troupe is playing Sin City for the first time. The two opposites attract, especially when Dailey finds that the beautiful ballerina is his good-luck charm. The songs are unmemorable and so are most of the production numbers in this overlong CinemaScope production, although it’s fun watching Charisse get tipsy and try to join a typical Vegas chorus line. The strangest part of the film is its use of “guest stars” Lena Horne, Jerry Colonna, and Frankie Laine, whose songs are awkwardly inserted into the picture with no connective tissue.

I hadn’t seen The Black Sleep (1956) since I was a kid, and all that stayed with me were the images of Lon Chaney, Jr. as a mute madman, John Carradine as a bearded prophet of doom, and the imposing Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson as another unfortunate victim of mad doctor Basil Rathbone’s human experiments. Their all-too-brief appearances remain the highlights of this hopelessly cheesy production. Whatever fun there is to be had from watching these veterans (along with Akim Tamiroff as a gypsy who supplies Rathbone with his victims) dissipates under the weight of a mediocre script and cut-rate production. Rathbone tries to maintain his dignity but it’s a shame to see him headlining a piece of tripe like this.

Finally, I decided to revisit an old favorite I hadn’t seen in decades, Samuel Fuller’s Park Row (1952), and I’m delighted to report that it holds up 100%. If you’re unfamiliar with Fuller’s work I don’t know how to prepare you; it is unique in all of American cinema. He’s in your face from the moment the film begins and announces itself as a tribute to American journalism. (“Written, produced, directed by a newspaperman—about newspapermen!” proclaims the trailer.)

Fuller drew on his own youthful experiences and his grand, romantic view of editors, reporters, and even typesetters to create this drama about a man (played by his macho alter-ego Gene Evans) who sets out to create a daily paper that can stand alongside the work of Pulitzer, Dana and the other lions of Park Row.

Fuller and cinematographer Jack Russell make terrific use of a large 1880s street set and run the camera up and down the street, in and out of doorways, to emphasize the vigor of the story and the gutsiness of its hero. (They use so many lengthy shots—well orchestrated within the frame—that every now and then someone, perhaps the director himself, felt the need to do an optical blow-up of the master to create a false reaction shot, since there were no cutaways the editor could fall back on.) Fuller captures the infectious excitement of a newsroom, peopled by a small but dedicated staff—including an Italian typesetter who can’t read a word of English and a man named Mergenthaler who is puttering with an invention called the linotype machine—and makes excellent use of character actors who rarely got to sink their teeth into such juicy roles. He even called on his brother Ving, in real life a veteran newspaper cartoonist, to provide the movie’s colorful editorial drawings. To some the film may seem corny or overstated, but it’s brimming with passion and conviction—just like its hero, and its creator. There isn’t a drop of irony in the picture: it means what it says, and that’s a breath of fresh air.

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July 2024