by Don Stradley
Old time Hollywood is the theme this month, with a trio of films looking back at the early days of the business, plus a couple of new Blu-ray releases from the Warner archive that are worth a look.
Day of the Locust (1975) is one of those slightly flawed films that slipped between the cracks and never developed a following. Yet it burns with the weirdness of the milieu it tries to capture, namely the seedy underbelly of 1930s Hollywood. Based on a novel by Nathanael West and directed by John Schlesinger, it follows a meek storyboard artist (William Atherton) as he encounters a series of eccentrics, including a flaky starlet wannabe played by Karen Black, and a lonely accountant named, funnily enough, Homer Simpson, played to oafish perfection by Donald Sutherland. Though the plot centers on Sutherland and Atherton competing for Black’s attention, the movie is really about people on the outermost fringes of show business being overwhelmed by the madness around them.
West worked for a time as a screenwriter in the 1930s, and his novel was the work of a man who saw Hollywood for what it was, a world of empty hype and imminent danger. He meant it as a satire, but his story has sadness to it as well. Though Burgess Meredith’s portrayal of Black’s cantankerous father earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting actor, and cinematographer Conrad Hall also earned a nomination, Day of the Locust received mixed, mostly poor reactions. At the time of the film’s release, the main knocks were the long running time and its resemblance to another recent movie set in the same era, Chinatown. Moreover, some reviewers felt Schlesinger hadn’t done justice to West’s novel. As Gene Siskel noted in his review for the Chicago Tribune, “You get the feeling Schlesinger couldn’t wait to get rid of his characters to indict Hollywood’s shallowness.” Yet the film still has a peculiar strength about it, and even Siskel admitted there were occasional moments of “great beauty,” and that Sutherland “draws our empathy.”
The new 2K restoration by Arrow Films from the original negative includes some interesting extras, starting with an audio commentary featuring many people who worked on the production. Meanwhile, film critic Glenn Kenny offers a new appreciation of the film called “Welcome to West Hollywood,” while costume and film historian Elissa Rose gives her take on the film in a new visual essay. There’s also an illustrated collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by Pamela Hutchinson. But aside from all of this garnishing, it’s nice to revisit a forgotten film that certainly deserves some appreciation. (Limited edition Blu-ray, 144 min, available Dec. 5)
In a similar vein is The Last Tycoon (1976), another neglected film about the old days of Hollywood. Based on the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald, it stars Robert De Niro as a movie producer working himself to death. If Day of the Locust is about Hollywood people on the outside looking in, The Last Tycoon is about the inner mechanisms of the old studio system, complete with backstabbing. Directed and produced by Elia Kazan and Sam Spiegel (a legendary pair responsible for such classics as On The Waterfront, The African Queen, and dozens of others, together and separately) the amazing supporting cast includes Robert Mitchum, Dana Andrews, Jack Nicholson, Tony Curtis, Donald Pleasance, Ray Milland, Angelica Huston, and Jeanne Moreau. There’s even a scene featuring De Niro opposite Nicholson, a rare chance to see these two titans together. Like Day of the Locust, The Last Tycoon didn’t find an audience in the 1970s. Thanks to Kino Lorber, we’ll get another look at it. This new version is a 4K restoration from the original camera negative, and includes an audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, author of Filmmakers on Filmmaking. (123 min. available Nov. 28)
If you want another look back at old Hollywood, Kino Lorber is also putting out a new Blu-ray of The Carpetbaggers (1964). This film stars George Peppard as a ruthless tycoon who seems to be modeled on Howard Hughes. As the wealthy and boisterous playboy turned movie mogul, Peppard abandons his sweet wife (Elizabeth Ashley), and plays dangerous games with his young, attractive stepmother (Carol Baker), who turns into a self-destructive alcoholic. The film also stars Robert Cummings, Lew Ayres, Martin Balsam, and in what would be his final role, Alan Ladd as a broken down cowboy star. Ladd died shortly after filming at age 50. This is a highly charged, melodramatic movie with a lot of heavy breathing and rough bedroom action. At the time it was considered quite risqué, particularly for a Carol Baker nude scene. This resulted in The Carpetbaggers being tagged with an “adults only” rating. It was also one of the highest grossing films of 1964. (150 min, available Nov. 28)
Once you’ve thoroughly explored the internal workings of old Hollywood, you might be tempted to watch a movie from that era. The Warner Archives Collection is a great place to start, with a recent batch of new Blu-ray releases of old titles. Start with Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936), a thriller starring the legendary Lionel Barrymore as an escaped convict who uses a mad scientist's serum to shrink people down to doll size. He then disguises himself as a kindly old lady running a toy store, so he can secretly send his tiny assassins out to avenge the men who framed him. Browning made this in the years after Freaks (1932), a major flop that capsized his career. Though this feature didn’t quite succeed in getting him back to the top, it was an intriguing little oddity that stands out in the genre of shrunken people movies. Many contributed to the screenplay, including Browning and Eric Von Stroheim. The nicely priced Blu-ray features a new 4K restoration from preservation elements, audio commentary from film historian Dr. Steve Haberman and filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr. Having endured the film historians, you can also watch the original trailer, and a couple of Warner cartoons, “Milk and Honey,” and “The Phantom Ship.” (78 min, available Oct. 31)
The Warner Archive also brings us Dance, Fools, Dance (1931), with Joan Crawford as an undercover reporter trying to bring down the empire of a dapper crime figure played by Clark Gable. This was the first pairing of Crawford and Gable, and they are as simmering hot as any pre-code film would allow. The new Blu-ray presentation includes a snazzy 4k restoration of the film from the original negative, plus an M-G-M documentary called Hollywood: The Dream Factory. The package also includes a pair of classic WB cartoons, “One More Time,” and “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile.” (81 min, available Oct 31)
From the reading room: Just when you thought nothing more could be said about Alfred Hitchcock, out comes Laurence Leamer’s new book, Hitchcock's Blondes: The Unforgettable Women Behind the Legendary Director's Dark Obsession. The title is a mouthful, and the book, at more than 300 pages, is a bit of a doorstopper, but it might have some value for Hitchcock fans. Like an explorer entering a cave with nothing but a vintage Coleman lantern, Leamer has gone deep into Hitchcock’s psyche to investigate one of the lasting questions about the master’s career: What exactly was it about Hitch and all of those blondes? From Entertainment Weekly: “Through their work and place as the prism for Hitchcock's obsessions and desires, we come to understand the inner workings of his mind—and how these women were key to constructing a legend of his own devising.” Leamer is a veteran author who has spent a great portion of his life writing about the rich, famous and powerful. This is his 19th title. (From G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 336 pages, hardcover, available Oct. 10).