The Gang’s Not Here: What Has Twentieth Century-Fox Done to My Movie?

April 11, 2007

—[Note: This article is illustrated with screen captures taken from YouTube-posted clips from a decent print of The Gang’s All Here. This is a long article.]——

My mother always taught me: “If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right.”

I haven’t always adhered to that advice myself, of course. On the other hand, I’ve never been charged with the responsibility of preserving and disseminating a national treasure.

gangs-poster-35.jpgHowever, Twentieth Century-Fox, has. And when the time came for the studio to finally shepherd the long-overdue home video release of one of its most unique gems—The Gang’s All Here, the final film and arguably the penultimate masterpiece of choreographer-director Busby Berkeley—they muffed it. Badly.
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Of course, apologists will say that films are really not all that important in the grand scheme of things, especially old and fairly obscure ones that appeal to only limited audiences. And, as a for-profit shareholder company, Fox should not be expected to spend lots of time and money on a DVD release that, at best, will only break even.

Still in all, movie studios are unique among businesses, and movies are unique among products. Those products are simultaneously works of art, or eventually become deemed so. They become part of the national and world consciousness. They are collectively revered and loved. They are iconic and beautiful to behold and contemplate—even when they’re imperfect. They are our history, and filmmakers and studios for the last two decades have paid lots of lip service to embracing the notion of film preservation. Film is an art and its artifacts should be saved they say. They have, de facto, assumed at least part of the mantle of culture guardians.

gangs_hoop-gals-w-shadow-50.jpgIn addition, those same studios have benefited from taxpayer and privately funded film restorations in which they keep the rights to market those films for profit. The reason we can now go to Costco and pick up a $9.99 DVD of the beautiful Library of Congress restoration of the great American masterwork, All Quiet on the Western Front, is because the American people funded it, and that allows the studio to make a little more scratch from an old perennial. Same goes for a lot of other films.

So, yes, I believe the studios owe us some giveback.

Even if the films aren’t restored, there often are superior prints out there, especially of well-established classics—if only the studio takes the extra time to get them.

In the case of The Gang’s All Here, Fox had that chance, but chose to ignore a collector who offered them a good print.

gangs-neon-hoop-girl-60.jpgSo now you can go to Costco or Borders or wherever and, if you choose, purchase a $15 DVD of a great classic transferred from an inferior print made with a formula that does not preserve the original vibrant Technicolor hues and which is overlaid with a brown haze atop resulting muted colors.

Even the untrained eye must see that things have gone awry with it at the very outset.

Before the credits even begin, the famous Twentieth Century-Fox fanfare blares over an off-white/off-pink overexposed-looking logo. What the hell kinda color is that supposed to be?

For someone who has waited literally decades for this film to come to home video, this is downright heartbreaking to see. If there is any movie that needs to be seen, nay experienced, in its full gaudy Technicolor splendor, this one is it. But, more on that in a minute…

gangs_miranda-w-bangals-50.jpgThe frustration is made worse by the knowledge that better prints of the film do exist. I’ve seen at least one of them. Both the Fox Movie Channel and the American Movie Classics cable channel have broadcast markedly better prints of the film over the past decade or so. The collector mentioned earlier also has a very good print that has been screened at various retro festivals in the recent past. Any of these would have made for a better issue than what Fox has chosen to offer.

Hell, this dodgy 8-minute clip of the finale on YouTube has better color. A lot better.

So, maybe the folks at Fox took one look at the film and came to the same conclusion about it as film historian David Shipman. In his massive, excellent overview of cinema, The Story of Cinema, Shipman begins his short assessment of The Gang’s All Here thusly: “The film is dire.”

Oddly enough, I agree with him.

gangs_carmen-hi-hat-wide-50.jpgThe film—a splashy 1943 WWII musical-comedy—is hokey, stiffly acted, stodgily executed, ridiculously plotted and poorly written. James Ellison as the square-jawed “juvenile” male lead is as exciting as plywood. Star Alice Faye, in her last major film, looks bored (as it turns out, she was). The song, “A Journey to a Star” is repeated throughout to the point of distraction. Busby Berkeley, never a great director of comedy, takes bad comic material and makes it worse through lumpen timing. The “Brazilian Bombshell,” Carmen Miranda, struggles with unfunny stereotypical ditsy-Latin comic dialogue. The central romance between Ellison and Faye is never convincing. And when the final musical numbers come, the plot just stops cold, explained away in throwaway fashion by a secondary character.

On the whole, it’s an embarrassment—something you’d be ashamed to be caught watching.

When I first saw it nearly 30 years ago, I thought it was one of the worst films ever made.

Seems I’ve made a pretty bad case for one of my 25 favorite movies.

Except that, for me, The Gang’s All Here is one of the most exquisite movies ever made. It’s not good, yet somehow it’s great.

The weirder it gets, the better it is. And it does get mighty weird, mighty often.

gangs_kaleido-opening.jpgIt also contains what I regard as the single greatest moment in cinema history: when Berkeley finally reduces his trademark anonymous chorine clones into abstract, geometrical forms via a dizzying kaleidoscope that fills the screen and is set to ecstatic orchestral music. It is the perfect melding of image and sound; a hair-raising moment, and the granddaddy of abstract, avant-garde cinema.

And it was all done by a showman—not an artist. A showman who ended up making art, and not knowing it.gangs_kaleid-chorines-50.jpg

Enough has been written in books and on the Internet about the film, so I won’t go into too much detail. Yet I can’t resist some observations and at least a mention of some of my favorite moments.

gangs_brasil-man-head-70.jpgThe film opens in complete darkness except for some diagonally positioned, floating bamboo trunks and a tiny, spotlighted human head in the distance crooning in a distinctly Latin accent the Ary Barroso classic, “Brazil.” We notice the head moving closer to us and suddenly are whisked onto a stage representation of New York City where a Brazilian liner is discharging its cargo of tropical produce and passengers, including a fruit-hatted Miranda. As Miranda struts back and forth singing about now-arcane references to the Good Neighbor policy, Berkeley’s camera swoops back and forth from the stage and into the audience for several minutes without an edit in what must have been the longest unbroken tracking shot in movies up to its day, and possibly until Orson Welles surpassed it in the opening of his 1958 film, Touch of Evil.

In the course of events, romantic complications arise, a stuffy millionaire is taught to loosen up, and lots of money is raised for war bonds.

gangs_faye-morph-80.jpgAnd, of course, chorines make geometrical patterns out of giant bananas, children dressed as adults dance the Polka Dot Polka, a contortionist dancer makes lewd poses with her body and women in blue-green leotards twirl red neon hoops in a fetishistic manner.

As a wartime propaganda tool, the film covers a lot of ground: reminding audiences of the friendly alliance between the USA and Latin America, making light of wartime shortages and thus rendering them tolerable, solidifying the message that gals on the homefront stick with their fighting servicemen, and eases class tensions by showing that the rich do their part for the war effort too. And thus, so should you.

gangs_goodman-minnie.jpgThat’s all very interesting. But what I like are moments such as when Berkeley’s camera swoops over and nearly decapitates bobby soxers and white jitterbuggers gathered around the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, as he serviceably croons “Minnie’s in the Money” (a reference to wartime women factory workers). A country that could produce a swing band this powerful was in no way going to lose the war (and a country that half a century later produces Britney Spears… well, let’s just pull the troops out now). Goodman gives a little cock of the head at the end of his first swinging set, as if to say, “Yeah, I know I’m good.”

I love that.

Alice Faye’s buttery foghorn-deep rendition of “No Love, No Nothin’”—another reminder about abstinence for homefront gals—is just about as dreamy as Judy Garland’s incomparable vocal of “The Man I Love” in 1954’s A Star is Born.

Edward Everett Horton and Eugene Pallette are delightful as a sort of Laurel and Hardy set of yin-and-yang millionaires, much better than the material they’re given to work with. And the same goes for lanky Charlotte Greenwood as Mrs. Potter, who perturbs her hubby with an incredible display of double-jointed leg maneuvers.

gangs_carmen-paducah-50.jpgGoodman and Miranda swinging out to “Paducah” (“just a pretty little city in Kentucky, but to me it rhymes with ‘lucky,’ when I’m looking into two blue eyes”) is so bad it’s great.

Kitschy, campy, a magnet for drag queens—call it what you will—The Gang’s All Here is the best musical Twentieth Century Fox ever made. Long after the studio’s once popular (and more grounded) wartime Betty Grable color musicals have been forgotten, there will be a cult that still reveres the psychedelic Berkeley film.

For many reasons that seem obvious to me—for what it represents stylistically and what it says about wartime America—The Gang’s All Here should long ago have been inducted into the Nationalgangs_faye-becomes-kaleid70.jpg Film Registry. It still awaits that long overdue honor as of April 2007.

Perhaps if it had, the film would have been given the respect and restoration it is due from its studio.

gangs-alice-faye-coll-box.jpgOn DVD the film has been issued as a stand-alone item and as part of a four-disc “Alice Faye Collection” box. Oddly enough, the three other (and artistically lesser) films in the box all show the care that Fox has given to most of its recent catalog classics DVD releases. (And besides looking good, the black-and-white biopic Lillian Russell is a good film in its own right). The print of That Night in Rio in the set shows what Technicolor is supposed to look like. But who the hell has been waiting 20 years for That Night in Rio to come out on video? Not me. So, of course, that’s the one that looks right. (And so they all do too in Warner’s superb Busby Berkeley Collection DVD box).

Like any studio, Fox is more concerned with the here and now—too busy pushing the latest $100+ million blockbuster from Tom Cruise or J-Lo, etc., to worry about any of this.

Still, the reviews are out, and, apart from a few apologists, they are not good.

In its assessment, DVDBeaver—which has accurate screen caps of the DVD—says flat out that The Gang’s All Here needs to be redone.

Agangs_faye-polka.jpgs some have noted, the print is clear and sharp. Which is true; I cannot deny it. And the colors are not horrible, per se, they’re just more muted. One online movie forum member speculated that the person overseeing the transfer may have tried to make the film more “modern” and acceptable for contemporary viewers by toning down the film’s outrageous colors.

If that was the case, in doing so a lot of the art of the movie has been lost.

That’s because a movie that depends so largely on style to succeed requires that every element that goes into that style be preserved and presented. Technicolor, accurately rendered, is a key, essential element in The Gang’s All Here.

gangs_hoop-array-60crop.jpgThree-color Technicolor, a now-lost technology that only existed in Hollywood for a short 20 years, is a lost art. Anything made with that technology is, in itself, a potentially lost work of art. When a print is made that does not represent that lost art as close to the original as possible, the film can be said to be, to some degree, “lost.”

In the case of The Gang’s All Here, style is everything. Color is essential to that style. And not just any color, but Technicolor—a Technicolor that is not reprocessed and muted with a grainy brown haze. A Technicolor that glows; a color where we can see not only that Carmen Miranda is wearing a tutti-frutti hat, but that that hat has a saturated silver nitrate color aura around it. A color so bright and saturated that it literally bursts outside its boundaries; like a kid whose Crayola has strayed over the lines.

The cluelessness about the importance of color, and particular color processes, may have something to do with the overemphasis that too many critics, studios and young filmmakers put on narrative concerns over style and other “intangible” aesthetics in movies.

The equation of movie art with narrative credibility informs most of what is understood to mean “good movies.” In that view, a good movie is like a good book. A good movie tells a good story, is well acted and has something “important” to say, a message. Movies become a form of picturized literature.

It might be a good story, well filmed, but that don’t make it art.

In my view of aesthetics, a movie like The Gang’s All Here, which is incompetent in nearly every way as regards credible narrative, is more a work of art than something like, say, In the Bedroom, which was hailed by critics but which, ultimately, is just a competent picturization of a short-story narrative.gangs_neon-gals-50.jpg

In The Gang’s All Here, Berkeley puts something on the screen that defies repetition; something that could only come from his own warped mind. It is unique in ways that movies that get on annual top 10 best lists are not.

So when someone at Fox transferred the movie to DVD, they likely didn’t put much thought into the importance of the color. The picture’s clear enough and the story can be followed. Print it and box it up and get it out to those grandmothers at Costco. They’re the only ones who are gonna buy an Alice Faye movie anyway. Oh, and maybe some gay guys, too.

But I’m not a gay guy or a grandmother. I’m just a 40-ish straight male concerned about the preservation of our heritage. And I sure would like to be able to immerse myself in the full glory of one of my favorite movies.

C’mon, Fox, have another go at it and give it the royal treatment: A double-disc special edition with a color-restored print and all the extras. And slap $50 on it and I’ll buy it in a New York minute. I’dgangs_carmen-hi-hat-1-50.jpg buy two copies, maybe three. I’ll buy copies for people I love—and hate.

But if you won’t redo it for me, Fox, for pity’s sake do it in memory of Carmen Miranda.

And I won’t poo-poo Paducah anymore—or Twentieth Century-Fox.

–Evan G


The 3 Hot Chix of My Childhood

March 15, 2007

Arriving to this life at the tail end of the Baby Boom I was of course part of the first generation to watch way too much TV; to be baby sat by Captain Kangaroo and Kukla Fran & Ollie and Bugs Bunny and Jed Clampett.

I considered those hours misspent in front of the tube to be a disaster in the development of my social skills, so much so that in the last 2 to 3 decades I’ve largely avoided television viewing and rather view the TV from afar in disgust as an outside observer.

But I still smile and get warm and fuzzy feelings inside whenever I think about or see pictures of Marlo Thomas, Elizabeth Montgomery and Diana Rigg.

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These ideal TV women formed my own ideal of the perfect woman when I was just a tyke. Whenever their shows came on (“That Girl,” “Bewitched,” or “The Avengers”) I sat agog in awe of their Barbie-like perfection. They churned up mysterious feelings inside me that at that young age I could not identify or interpret. Back then, in the 60s, it was still possible for a child to go blissfully through life without sex being mentioned. And, if it was mentioned, we really didn’t want to know about it. Back then, “The Talk” about the “birds and the bees” was something we dreaded. No carefree kid, especially brought up Catholic, wants to fidget through their parent’s embarassed, fumbling explanations of uber-serious taboo matters.

They want to learn it on the street.

Oh yeah, there was also Barbara Feldon from “Get Smart” (it was that Jean-Arthur-like buttery voice that gave her an edge). Make that 4 Hot Chix from my childhood. But then I think of Ann-Margret, and Tuesday Weld and Joey Hetherton and Goldie Hawn and Dawn Wells (I was absolutely a “Mary Ann guy”, no contest), well, the list gets a bit unwieldy. (Oddly, Barbara Eden in “I Dream of Jeannie” was probably the hottest of them all, but at the time her excessive makeup on that show made me neutral about her.)

Marlo, Elizabeth and Diana. All thin and pretty and perfect. Their fleeting cathode-ray presence made me know of my heteorosexuality before I knew what the hell that was. I wanted them, but I wasn’t quite sure in what way.

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While I was innocently ogling these idealized unattainable TV women, I was completely and stupidly ignoring the attentions of two cute girls in the neighborhood who were practically at war over me, a brunette gal named Terry and a blonde named Judy. Judy wanted me to play doctor with her for Chissake (the whole magilla: “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine”) and I said no. It was that damned Catholic guilt drummed into me. TV and Catholic guilt kept me boringly pure, and afraid of real life.

There are two things I regret: not playing doctor with Judy, and not buying Microsoft stock in the mid-’70s.

Anyway, I don’t intend to wax rhapsodic in any detail about my perfect TV fantasy women of that era. What hasn’t already been written by pathetic fanboys about Diana Rigg as Mrs. Emma Peel? We all know the pull of her rapier wit, her chic confidence, her knowing sly smirk, her tight leathers and kung-fu deadliness. Marlo and Elizabeth were Mrs. Perfect-Hair Domestics, with boring guys in tow who made me jealous. Marlo adorable doing double takes and pouting; Elizabeth irresistable when quizzical. Maybe I saw them more as perfect potential mothers than as potential lovers.

“Bewitched” now strikes me as absurd in the way it expects a woman of power to sublimate all those powers to her husband’s will. The metaphors are obvious and feminists can justly have a field day in the analogizing.

I won’t psychologize either about the damaging socializing effects of being weaned on too-perfect media ideals of womanhood, and what that might do to one’s expectations and interpersonal relations in real life.

Anyway, maybe the following pix can convey some of the appeal of these retro sweeties, and maybe it will help me put these lingering subconscious infatuations to rest:

MARLO:

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ELIZABETH:

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DIANA:

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Ah, how can you not be wistful?

-Evan


Restored “All Quiet on the Western Front”

March 5, 2007

Only twice in the history of the Academy Awards did the truly best picture of the year actually win the top Oscar.

And in one of the those years, it’s still debatable. In 1950, there was no better film than best-picture winner All About Eve, but there were two movies that were just as great: Sunset Boulevard (best picture nominee) and Rashomon (best foreign film winner).

That leaves 1930.

Early in its life, the Academy got it so very right. All Quiet on the Western Front not only was the best picture made in America that year, it was the greatest film made in the entire world.

For many years the film circulated in inferior transfers taken from worn and dirty and audibly inferior prints.

Last month, Universal finally, after a decade of sitting on it, released to DVD the long-awaited Library of Congress restored version of perhaps the greatest war movie ever made.

When the subject all-quiet-dvd.jpgof this film comes up, which to my mind is not often enough, I have a hard time toning down my hyperbole. To me, it’s one of the 10 greatest and most important films ever made. (See, I did it again.)

There’s plenty of info out on the web and in books about the film. It’s a perennial undisputed classic, so I’m not going to replicate all of verbiage that’s been expended.

The stumbling block for most contemporary viewers is the stilted, overemphatic acting, a holdover from silent cinema. But with repeated viewings, I’ve come to realize that the acting style befits the hysteria that overcomes the green lads as they dodge death in the trenches.

Everything else in the film is perfect. It has a serious message and the good sense to show the horror of war without relying on obvious voiceovers and by minimizing noble speeches. When those speeches come, they do so at the right moments.

It eschews music. War is not a grand Wagnerian fantasy. There is no Ride of Valkyries soundtrack or a Samual Barber Adagio to sway viewer emotions. In this regard the movie surpasses all the so-called serious anti-war films of recent years. The only sounds are zipping bullets, and relentless shell bursts, machine-gun fire and screams.

The film remains timeless for being so raw, brutal and uncompromising. It feels like a firsthand documentary of WWI.

Made four years before full production code enforcement, All Quiet on the Western Front offered a non candy-coated, unromantic view of war that would not again be possible for Hollywood again until the 1970s. Stanley Kubrick made a good stab with Paths of Glory in 1957, but that was largely a theatrical, highly controlled and often artificial presentation.

The only jingoism in All Quiet… is mocked, right at the very beginning of the movie.

Director Lewis Milestone pulls his camera back from a window where jubilant crowds and a marching band hail their conquering heroes and send young boys to war. The window looks out from a school room and as the camera pulls back, an old schoolmaster orates some indistinct bellicose sounds drowned out by the trumpets and the shouts of the crowds. At first, it seems like technical limitation of early sound cameras, but as the camera dollies into the teacher his voice becomes distinct and the outdoor jubilation is recessed. The noises of the bands and the rhetoric of the schoolmaster are one and the same. No difference; all designed to whip the mob into a frenzy.

From there, the movie is one searingly memorable scene after another. Shorn of glitz, it the most honest movie ever to come from the golden age of Hollywood. It seems so much different from every other classic film. Like The Birth of a Nation, it remains a great movie event. A happening perhaps even more than it is art.

It is a film that must be seen more than once; its power builds with each viewing.

The conversion of friendly postmaster Himmelstoss into brutal sadist presciently shows why fascism is so appealing to the lower and middle classes; it provides a sense of power, surety and belonging missing in their lives. Himmelstoss’ relentless drilling of the raw volunteers provides for more amazing imagery as recruits are forced to fall into the mud over and over. His Napoleonic complex is tested when, at the front, he shows his true colors as a sniveling coward: OK with sending others to die but reluctant when it comes his turn.

After the film’s central battle—a long sequence of attack and retreat in which countless men on both sides are mowed down with no yardage gained—the men retreat to their trenches. One image that haunts me is Slim Summerville’s character, Tjaden, panting and sweating and hungry, taking out his dirty combat knife to slice some of the blood off his bread, then busting a bottle and passing it to his exhausted comrades, swigging without regard for the jagged bottleneck.

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A scene that really jumped out at me on this viewing was after the death of Kat (Louis Wolheim), the hulking mentor to the film’s young protagonist, Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres).

At the medic station, Kat is left to lay as the medics go on about their card game. Paul simply walks away, stunned but powerless to linger or to cry. Just another day. The casualness of this scene in the tent; the way it is shot, with few cuts and the blase nature of everyone involved, make it seem incredibly real. There are many scenes like this in the film.

It was not a matter of if I would cry at some point in this masterwork, but when.

The final scene, which is famous but is nonetheless not a spoiler I want to reveal to the uninitiated, begins as the war ends. A solo wistful harmonica tune wafts across a landscape where cleanup appears to be underway. There are no sounds of barrage or gunfire. It feels more like the cleanup after a ball game than a still-dangerous war zone.

And then there is the famous ending, and here I found myself again choking back tears as Paul Baumer reaches out his hand to meet his destiny.

Despite their harrowing depictions and serious intent most serious war films of recent vintage, including Saving Private Ryan, find a way to give audiences closure; to give them an emotional out; to get them off the hook.

All Quiet… does not do this. It only gives us the accusing faces of the dead.

As for the restoration, there’s nothing to offer but praise for both the improved image and sound, particularly the sound. It adds another dimension to a film that was already powerful and overwhelming.

I bought the DVD at Costco for the no-brainer purchase price of $8.69.

Beware, do not buy the earlier, inferior DVD issue with the blueish background. The stark DVD cover art shown in the picture above is the new and better issue. It says “Library of Congress” restoration in the back cover text.

The image below from the film is a timeless one. The soldiers at Walter Reed and the ones with their limbs blown off and (warning, disturbing) faces burned beyond recognition accuse us still.

-Evan

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