Every Tuesday, we shine a light on a few big, worthy or just plain weird DVD releases.
Jean Harlow 100th Anniversary Collection
A famous anecdote has Jean Harlow meeting Margot Fonteyn and mispronouncing the ballerina’s name “Mar-got.” “No, my dear, the ‘t’ is silent,” Fonteyn is supposed to have said. “As in ‘Harlot’.” Never mind that the dancer was just 18 when the movie star died—in 1937, at 26—and could not have met her; the joke meant to show a well-bred lady of the high arts cutting a Hollywood tramp down from big-screen size. Harlow’s image certainly exuded sexuality of the most precocious sort (she was just 20 when Platinum Blonde made her a star), emphasized by her appraising stare, her sassy line deliveries and her fondness for the no-bra look. The closing moments of the 1933 Dinner at Eight drive home the harlot connection. At a fancy party, Harlow observes, “Do you know that the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?” Doyenne Marie Dressler does a double take and replies, “Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.”
In her brief span, Harlow ran through three husbands: a local beau when she was 16 (that lasted two years), cinematographer Hal Rossen (six months) and, between them, the MGM studio executive Paul Bern, who committed suicide two months into their marriage amid rumors of his impotence. Her back-lot story, which included an affair with MGM star William Powell and early death from kidney failure, was lurid enough to have inspired two sensational bio-pics, both in 1965. But if Harlow were just the sum of her scandals, the Warner Archive Collection would not be issuing this commemorative seven-disc set. She was no cartoon of worldly concupiscence, like her pre-Code counterpart Mae West. What Harlow projected was a knowing, nonchalant earthiness about Topic A. And sealed the deal with a comic timing that said, of all bedroom matters, it is to laugh.
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Born Harlean Carpenter in Kansas City (though her diction suggested the Lower East Side), she took her mother’s name on entering movies and lucked into the female lead in Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels when the silent aerial epic was reshot as a talkie and the original leading lady, the Norwegian Greta Nissen, couldn’t manage the dialogue. Harlow’s reading of the line “Would you be shocked if I changed into something more comfortable?”—less a flirtation than a fait accompli—set the Bijou wolves barking; and her toxic silver hair style had women across the country begging to be platinum blondes.
Hughes, who had signed Harlow to a five-year contract, lent her out to Columbia for a Frank Capra newspaper comedy in which the actress was improbably cast as the rich girl to beautific Loretta Young’s struggling reporter. Hughes certified Harlow’s signature look by insisting that the title be changed to Platinum Blonde, and soon she found a new home at MGM. Known as the Family Values studio, MGM bent its own rules to accommodate Harlow. In the 1932 Red-Headed Woman she screws her way to the top of society and at the end is canoodling with chauffeur Charles Boyer. She made six pictures with reigning MGM lion Clark Gable—who was as sure of his sex appeal as Harlow, and as pleased with it—including the humid melodrama Red Dust, the Depression love story Hold Your Man and the churning, charming China Seas.
There: I’ve mentioned seven top Harlow films, none in this no-frills collection. (They’re available elsewhere, and Turner Classic Movies is dedicating part of next Wed. and Thurs., Nov. 9 and 10, to her, showing Platinum Blonde, Dinner at Eight and a documentary about the star.) But the set offers more than 10 hours of slick vehicles for the Harlow chassis, and bright repartee with such costars as Car Grant, Spencer Tracy and Robert Taylor. One of the movies is a gem: the sizzling, cynical comedy Bombshell, with Harlow playing herself, more or less, as a Hollywood sexpot eager to elope with besotted playboy Franchot Tone, who tells her, “Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair.” She’s weary of the studio publicists who are, she says, “Treating me like a strip act in a burlesque show! A glamorous bombshell, eh? A glorified chump, that’s what I’ve been! Well, I’m sick of it, you understand? With the business and everybody! You can get another It Girl, a But Girl or a How-When-and-Where Girl.”
The real Harlow was a team player whom MGM kept working hard: 16 films in six years. She was teamed again with Gable for her last film, Saratoga, but died before completing it. A stand-in, averting her head or hiding behind binoculars, replaced the star in the final scenes, as Gable spoke merrily to the shade of a dead woman. Now that’s acting. So is Harlow’s comic ease in the midst of her fatal illness. In the movie, she’s romancing Gable but engaged to stuffy Walter Pidgeon. In one scene Pidgeon bursts in and finds a cigar (Gable’s) on the coffee table. Harlow quickly picks it up and puffs away. “I’m trying to obey doctor’s orders,” she says blithely. “He said no more cigarettes.” Even at the end of a short, dark life, Harlow never lost her light, saucy touch.
The Essential Daffy Duck
In 1998 the TIME editors were winnowing their selection of 100 Persons of the 20th Century and wanted one or two impish choices. Somehow, they came to me. I suggested one of the greatest comic actors in movie history: a peerless exemplar of mania and depression, who overcame a chaotic youth and a speech impediment to express the futility of man’s condition. Daffy Duck. My bosses liked the notion of a cartoon character gracing their august list, but went with that eternal 10-year-old, Bart Simpson. I admired Bart too, and wrote the tribute.
Chuck Jones, the Warner Bros. director who had shepherded the lisping Daffy from wild childhood in the 1930s to mature and desolate duckhood a decade later, was devastated to hear that Daffy had come so close to glory, only to be defeated. Then again, that was Daffy’s pathetic fate from 1937 to 1963 in a hundred or so mostly-fabulous Warners cartoons, 15 of which appear on this two-disc set.
Jones used to say that Bugs Bunny, the star of the Termite Terrace menagerie, was Chuck as he dreamed of being, and Daffy was Chuck as he was. Whereas Bugs, who began life as a bonkers bunny, soon became the coolest dude, master of every impending calamity, bluffing his rivals (Elmer Fudd or Porky Pig or Daffy) with the bravado of James Cagney and the savoir-faire of Cary Grant, Daffy was the splenetic loser, an Everyduck on who destiny falls like an anvil. His great luck was to be led through his misadventures by a group of superb animation auteurs: Tex Avery, who directed Daffy’s debut in Porky’s Duck Hunt; Bob Clampett, whose riotous extension of physical comedy and graphic distortion birthed some of the medium’s dizziest masterpieces; Friz Freleng, who wondrously emphasized the little black duck’s vaudeville pluck; and Jones, Daffy’s best friend, most elegant tormentor and prime apotheosizer.
Daffy fans—they are legion, learned and possessive—will quibble with the “Essential” claim of this pack. Where are Clampett’s Draftee Daffy, Freleng’s You Ought to Be in Pictures and Yankee Doodle Daffy, Jones’ immortal Rabbit Fire and Rabbit Seasoning? (Answer: on one of the dozens of other WB cartoon compilations. A biggie, Looney Tunes Platinum Collection Vol. 1, comes out in two weeks.)
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But much of what’s here is choice, beginning with Porky’s Duck Hunt, animated by Clampett and Virgil Ross. Daffy shows up about five minutes into the eight-minute cartoon, identifies himself as “just a crazy darned old duck” and executes somersaults and cartwheels on the pond surface as if it were a skating rink. Early Daffy was a troublemaker with a touch of sadism; in Daffy Duck and Egghead he explains his mischief away by saying, “I’m not crazy, I just don’t give a darn.” In Clampett’s Book Revue, he does a spot-on imitation of Danny Kaye imitating a Russian singing “Nothing could be feener than to be in Caroleena in the Mahhhning” (a splendidly astute vocal parody by Mel Blanc). The collection then escorts Daffy out of the War years and into his more familiar postwar character, who begins every film with bravado and braggadocio (“I may be a craven little coward, but I’m a greedy craven little coward”) only to pratfall into ignominy that, deep down, he thinks he deserves (“Shoot me again, I enjoy it”).
The set boasts a fair number of unarguable classics—Frank Tashlin’s Plane Daffy, Clampett’s The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, Jones’ Duck Amuck, Duck Dodgers in the 24-1/2th Century and Ali Baba Bunny—plus some much later Daffy Re-ducks cartoons (The Duxorcist, The Night of the Living Duck). There’s also a new, 20-minute profile whose title sums up how the great little black duck has endured nearly 65 years of hard-won defeat: “Ridicule Is the Burden of Genius.” And Daffy is, I still say, one of the comic geniuses of the last century or this one.
Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place
An acclaimed young West Coast novelist decided to drive cross-country to see the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. He took some along some friends and some drugs and, in the process, kinda sorta invented, or at least gave a tie-dyed face to, the psychedelic culture of the ’60s. From their exploits Tom Wolfe fashioned a best-selling nonfiction novel, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and Paul McCartney was inspired to create the Beatles movie (and album) The Magical Mystery Tour.
The novelist was Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), the bus driver was Neal Cassady (immortalized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road) and his friends called themselves the Merry Band of Pranksters. Along the route they met some of the most liberated minds of their generation: poet Allen Ginsberg, novelists Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone and Kerouac, Harvard LSD gurus Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert. “We weren’t old enough to be beatniks,” said Kesey of his Pranksters, “and we weren’t young enough to be hippies.” They were a dozen or so adventurous white folks seeking what Kesey called “a cool place of the mind.”
How sweet, sad, silly and innocent they look today in Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s nonfiction road movie Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place (on Magnolia DVD). The indefatigable Gibney—he’s directed six full-length docs (including studies of Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Abramoff and Eliot Spitzer) since his 2008 Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side—and editor Ellwood had miles of faded but still lusciously colorful footage that the Pranksters had shot on their long strange trip. Fun when not instructively boring, as any two transcontinental bus rides might be, the movie summons other ’60s cinematic experiments by fellow travelers from other arts, like Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls and Norman Mailer’s Maidstone. All operated from the premise that a filmmaker is somebody with a movie camera and friends with a lot of spare time.
Hollywood would not have cast Kesey as a dopester high priest, or even a cool (or kool) dude. A football player and champion wrestler at the University of Oregon, Kesey married his sweetheart Faye from junior high and stayed with her until his death in 2001. (She and their son Zane served as consultants on the film.) “I’ve always been a fairly reliable, straight-up, middle-of-the-road citizen,” he said later, “that just happens to be an acid-head.”
On a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in the Creative Writing program at Stanford, Kesey began writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He also enrolled in a federal program at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Center in which patients were given LSD and their reactions recorded. “It’s like looking at a Rorschach test and seeing mashed testicles,” Kesey mused while under the influence. “Bats and eggs going into the strobe light… hexagons and pentagons and mummies.” (The full tape is a Magic Trip DVD extra.) At the time he didn’t know that the CIA had funded the experiment to determine if interrogation subjects—say, enemy soldiers—would spill their guts under LSD. It was like waterboarding plus mind-blowing. And it stoked sensations Kesey wanted to keep investigating and experiencing.
Having visited New York City for the 1963 opening of the stage version of Cuckoo’s Nest (starring Kirk Douglas, whose son Michael would eventually produce the 1975 movie), Kesey resolved to return the following year to see the World’s Fair. He bought a 1939 International Harvester school bus, had a friend paint over the orange-with-black-stripes shell with gaudy, groovy pastels and set out on his trip. Everyone on board got a nickname: Kesey was “Swashbuckler,” Cassady “Sir Speed Limit,” Jane Burton “Generally Famished,” Kathy Casamo “Stark Naked,” etc. In retrospective interviews, the participants memories differed. “It was like a troupe of minstrels and mimes,” says Casamo. “Their presence was very beautiful.” Burton, who bailed after the bus reached New York, recalled the tour as a frat party gone wild and wrong: “just a bunch of lunatics acting idiotic.”
Among the lunatic aspects: Cassady, the speed-demon motormouth, was chosen to pilot the bus and provide nonstop tour-guide commentary. (“We are actually fourth-dimensional beings in a third-dimensional body in a second-dimensional world.”) The group did drugs all along the way, and their psychedelic bus might have aroused more police suspicions had it not been the first one. Passing through Phoenix during the 1964 Presidential campaign, the Pranksters seemed to support Republican candidate Barry Goldwater by painting “A vote for Barry is a vote for fun” on the side of the bus. Passengers paired off in recombinant couples, and on a detour through Manitoba on the way back they took massive doses of RT-290, “the Rolls Royce of psychedelics.” Somehow they all survived, though in 1968 Cassady was found dead by railroad tracks in Mexico.
Back in California, Kesey said, “I wanted to be done with it. I wanted to get back to business. I had books to write, kids to raise. But it just wouldn’t die. People kept coming around.” His gang had put together a 30-hour filmed record of their trip. Shown on weekends at his home, then at more public venues, the movie become its own phenomenon, party and trip, especially with accompaniment by Kesey’s young musician friends, the Grateful Dead. By now the author was not just famous but notorious: busted for marijuana possession, he had to explain the head culture to the straight press. This impromptu apologia comes pretty close: “I feel like you only come to this movie once, and if you don’t get something rewarding out of every minute you’re sitting there, then you’ve blown your ticket.”
The Gibney-Ellwood doc might not offer quite that reward-per-minute ratio, but it’s worth catching as an invaluable artifact of a wild time long ago and—unless the Occupy Wall Streeters really do liberate America—far away.