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Crompton’s Mule… May 27, 2011

Posted by John Hodson in : Comedy, Film & DVD Reviews, British Film , 1 comment so far

Spring and Port Wine

Bill Naughton’s Spring and Port Wine was filmed in 1969, released early 1970, but based on a story conceived and written by the Bolton based playwright in mid-1950s austerity Britain.

Spring and Port Wine

As such, it’s ever so slightly out of time; this tale of a gentle, yet strict and starched collar stiff, family man coming to terms with the new liberalism of his post-war universe perhaps struck a chord even as the swinging ’60s drew to a close, but the synchronicity of the piece is more in tune with it’s origins. The muleish Rafe Crompton - played to perfection by Huddersfield born James Mason - reminded me of my grandfather’s generation; tightly-laced Edwardians who worked as slaves, who placed the highest value on family and thrift. Who loved deeply, but were ever so slightly horrified by waste or overt displays of affection.

Indeed, there’s a clue to the real anchor stone of the setting when Rafe talks of the the Hunger Marches of the early 1930s, being “20 years ago”. And I know of no working family of the era who would have gathered, as the Cromptons do, round the piano (piano? There’s posh…) to lustily sing their songs of praise - by 1970 it was, more likely, to have been the Dansette to join in with ‘All You Need Is Love’

Sring and Port Wine - around the Piano

Still, that caveat aside - the same also, I feel, applies to the film of Naughton’s The Family Way by the way - it is a rather beautiful, gentle comedy from the Irish born author. Hilda Crompton (Susan George) seemingly makes a bid for independence from the iron rule of her father, Rafe, when she refuses to eat a fried herring mum Daisy (Diana Coupland) has prepared for supper (or tea; depending on which part of Lancashire you may be from, gentle reader). Rafe is adamant Hilda will eat the fish; Hilda digs in her heels. Impasse.

The herring at the centre of the plot is slightly red - and as we come to see, not quite what it appears - for here is a tale wherein not only does Rafe come to terms with a nascent feminism (although that may be overstating things slightly), but his family also comes to terms with him, this chap who fully realises the solemn responsibility of being head of a home, and all that entails; both the great weight and the immense joy.

“A home can become a prison where there isn’t love.”
Rafe Crompton

Set and filmed on location not a mile from where I sit, Spring and Port Wine is the remedial nephew of the kitchen sink drama; the happier, less angry nephew, who knows his place in the world and is content with it. Reasonably.

It is undoubtedly a golden-hued portrayal of working people that’s both true and an outright lie; life was like this, the communities, the good neighbours toiling together, the neatly painted front doors, the proud little gardens. Perhaps though, only on good days.

Spring and Port Wine - the herring

But Spring and Port Wine doesn’t condescend - it’s a piece aimed squarely at those working classes, the film’s audience turning the glass on themselves and liking what they see. And after years of being shown that it’s all a bit grim up north - This Sporting Life, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, the inestimably brilliant but ultimately miserable Kes, et al - Peter Hammond’s film is something of a throwback in terms of a ‘poor but happy’ ethos. Yet there’s a vein of genuine affection to be seen.

It is a sweet, simple slice of ‘feel good’ propaganda showing that the toiling masses had more going on than at first meets the eye. Rafe might be an old dog, but he’s familiar with poetry, can play the piano - has a parlour big enough to hold such an instrument - and lives by an almost unbendable moral code. However, in a fast changing world, he’s not adverse to learning new tricks. He’s a role model for a new age.

Billy Fisher hasn’t the guts to get out of small town Yorkshire, Arthur Seaton has to better himself or become the withered old man Nottingham has made his father, for Colin Smith, perhaps nothing more is accomplished other than a pyrrhic victory. Rafe Crompton, with a few tweaks here and there, is comfortable in his skin and with his lot.

What the rest of the Comptons achieve is the nod from dad to help themselves to a modicum of independence, and be safe in the knowledge that family, ultimately, is all that most of us have to truly depend on, for love, for comfort. For happiness. When you get down to it, what more can you ask?

Spring and Port Wine - love conquers all

The cast is wonderful; Diana Coupland, Susan George, Rodney Bewes, Hannah Gordon and a host of familiar faces sneak in and out, Arthur Lowe, Bernard Bresslaw, Frank Windsor, Ken Parry.

It is almost wholly Mason’s show; the Yorkshireman breathes life into this patriarchal Lancastrian whether he’s striding across Bolton’s moorland, almost guiltily strutting in his new 40 guinea overcoat, or - and it’s a tiny detail but, like all Mason’s acting, so true - luxuriously washing his hands, fingernails and creases blackened by a day at the mill, in machine oil.

I’ve long liked Spring and Port Wine, but now I fancy I love it in an almost wistful fashion. As I approach Rafe’s age, I hanker after simpler times. Incidentally, Roy Baird executive produced this and If…., and both Michael Medwin (who also produced If….) and Albert Finney - ‘Arthur Seaton’ himself - were producers. There’s pedigree here.

Spring and Port Wine DVD

Released in the UK a couple of years ago, apparently after an exhaustive search for elements decent enough to transfer to DVD, the not always reliable Optimum Entertainment have really come up with the goods. The transfer is simply wonderful; presented in 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, the colours are true, it’s virtually unmarked, sharp as a tack and very film-like; only a high-definition presentation could better it and then, I fancy for most viewers, only marginally.

The mono soundtrack is adequate with Douglas Gamley’s simple but perfectly apposite score well represented.

The Perils of Paulette December 20, 2006

Posted by John Hodson in : Horror, Comedy, Action / Adventure / Thriller, Film & DVD Reviews , add a comment

Reap The Wild Wind (1942) 

I’m desperately in love with Paulette Goddard. There; I said it, and I don’t care who knows! The only impediment to my ardour is the age difference - the luscious Ms Goddard was born in 1910 - and the fact that she died nearly 17 years ago. But nevertheless, I’m in love…and I sigh when she hits the screen. *Sigh*…

1942’s Reap The Wild Wind was a genuine Hollywood blockbuster from the Paramount studios, and had all the ingredients, and then some, necessary for a big, flashy slice of hugely entertaining hokum - a fantastic cast, a rip-roaring story, Oscar winning special effects, three-strip Technicolor cinematography that is good enough to make you weep. And the last vital ingredient to pull this circus together and make it all work. What’s that? Well if I tell you that the full USA title was Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind.

Not in any sense a great auteur, C.B. knew how to entertain, even if he was scathing in his private assessment of the audience that lapped up his brand of three-ring showmanship. His trademark was entertaining, and entertaining BIG. So here we have a movie that DeMille himself - he was never shy - sells to his audience in his opening narration, a story, set in the 1840’s, that ’sweeps the ocean, with mighty ships plying their trade, braving the hurricanes off the Florida Keys, providing the lifeblood for American commerce…’ It’s a bit of a flag waver, what with the war and all…

We open with ‘Captain Jack Stuart’ (John Wayne) unconscious on the deck of his own ship, his villainous first mate ‘Mathias Widgeon’ (Victor Kilian) about to drive the clipper onto the unforgiving rocks of Key West.

It’s a vile plot by the most evil of salvage men ‘King Cutler’ (played with wonderful relish by the great Raymond Massey) to get himself half the value of the ship’s cargo for nothing more than a simple bribe; a game he’s been playing to make himself and his cohorts fantastically rich, while the ship owners, and principally their attorney ‘Steve Tolliver’ (Ray Milland), determine to seek him out and hang him and his kind from the yard arm.

Slap in the middle is ’Loxi Claiborne’ (the aforementioned Ms Goddard), who runs a decent, honest salvage company. While Cutler and his men scurry about ripping the cargo out of Stuart’s sinking ship, it’s Loxi and ‘Capt. Phil Philpott’ (another superb sketch by character actor Lynne Overman) who set about rescuing the crew, even though Capt. Phil grumbles ‘men don’t bring no salvage money’.

Stuart is wrongly dismissed as Captain and he blames Tolliver. But it’s the attorney who, despite the acrimony, fights for Stuart to be given command of the line’s new steam flagship The Southern Cross. However both men’s love for Loxi is about to lead them into deep water, double crossing and death. The action gets a little bogged down in a meldodramatic courtroom sequence, but the film balances that with a superb underwater sequence, which took two months to film, involving a giant rubber squid (oh, c’mon give ‘em a break - in 1942 that looked as real as, well, ‘Bruce’ did in Jaws), a race against time and a Florida hurricane.

It’s one hell of a romp; Goddard gives us glimpses of what her ‘Scarlett O’Hara’ might had been like had she passed her screen test, flouncing about in petticoats and tossing off a ‘fiddle di dee’ here and there at her black ‘mammy’ (the black characters are treated, I’m afraid, shamefully). Milland’s Tolliver is something of a ‘Scarlet’ too, a Pimpernel figure, ever so slightly camp with his ‘talking’ lap dog, dandy clothes and just where did he get that hairstyle? Thankfully, he is not quite the hapless fop he appears - he’s an action man when required (of course), taking charge when Waynes angry, but dithering, Stuart can’t get his act together.

It’s worth mentioning here that for the 1954 theatrical re-release, the ‘Duke’ was given top billing in posters because of his increased star status, and Susan Hayward (who plays Goddard’s little sister), and who had since 1942 become a major star instead of a supporting player, was misleadingly billed second. Formerly top-billed Milland got third billing in the new campaign, while leading lady Goddard was demoted to fourth billing. I might add that Milland’s likeness doesn’t even make the front cover of the current DVD release (that’s Goddard and Wayne) where he’s given third billing…it’s worse on the back cover, where Milland comes a lowly fifth. Ah, fickle Hollywood…

Look among the cast too for Robert Preston, Charles Bickford, Walter Hampden, Louise Beavers, Hedda Hopper (in her last film role before she started to bite the hand that fed her). Victor Young’s sweeping score is very redolent of the period, all in all, fans of the Golden Era of Hollywood will be delighted to see the film again…and again.

Universal’s DVD has been around in R1 almost since the dawn of the format, but was only released as a stand alone disc in R2 a couple of years ago, after previously being part of the same studio’s generally poor John Wayne Box Set. Not that long ago (not least for slapdash stuff like the ‘Wayne’ box) the mere mention of Universal would send shivers down my spine. Thankfully, the studio has upped its game both in Region 1 and Region 2, and now - what a turnaround - can be generally relied on to do the right thing at least as far as transfer quality is considered. But what a revelation Reap The Wild Wind is - it’s nigh on Warners top-standard quality, true eye candy.

The colours - and I just love three-strip Technicolor when it’s presented as well as this - are wonderfully rendered; just check the plumage on the parrot in the tavern sequence for instance (or the plumage on Ms. Goddard…). There’s a little grain early on, but not too much to complain about, and it’s as clean as a whistle with very few nicks and marks. Universal has done a fantastic job with a beautiful transfer that can only have come from elements in top class condition. The mono sound is clear and strong.

The shame is that there are no extras, save for a trailer, also in excellent shape. It would have been nice to have had a featurette on Reap The Wild Wind, or a documentary on Milland, Goddard, or DeMille, that larger than life figure himself. But really, with the film looking this eye wateringly good, it’s almost churlish to gripe, and this is Universal after all, a studio that is oft times quite casual, and a little stingy on the extras front, particularly as far as many of its Oscar winning back catalogue films are concerned.

But the film, the standard of the transfer, is paramount (sorry Universal; no pun intended). We have to be thankful for small mercies.

The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Geoff Montgomery: It’s worse than horrible because a zombie has no will of his own. You see them sometimes walking around blindly with dead eyes, following orders, not knowing what they do, not caring.
Larry Lawrence: You mean like Democrats?

Two years earlier and Ms Goddard and Bob Hope were busy trying - and succeeding - to recreate the success of their previous year’s smash The Cat and The Canary. The veteran, and versatile, George Marshall was in the director’s chair, picking the bones (pun fully intended) out of Dickey & Goddard’s (no relation) pre-WW1 Broadway play The Ghost Breaker. They added an ’s’, made some tweaks to the gags, put some backbone into the female lead’s character and came away with an 85 minute comedy thriller, a ‘frightmare’ with laughs, the very epitome of both the genre and cinematic efficiency.

‘Mary Carter’ (Goddard) inherits an eerie castle, her family’s ancestral home built on glum, forbidding island off the coast of Cuba. Mary is off to claim her birthright, and gets tangled up with radio star ’Larry Lawrence’ (Hope on cracking form), who’s on the run from the mob and the law for a murder he thinks, mistakenly, he’s committed. With attempts on Mary’s life, voodoo warnings and threats of death and disaster dogging their every move, our heroine, Larry and his butler ‘Alex’ (Willie Best), come up against spooks, zombies…and an all too human menace.

There’s not a scene wasted, not a line of spare dialogue in The Ghost Breakers. The strengths of The Cat and The Canary are here yet again; plenty of laughs, lots of frights all in a tight, economical package. Yes, Willie Best, is there to roll his eyes and knock his knees, but he’s a great foil for Hope, who can’t himself appear too much of a dunderhead. He does, after all, have to solve the mystery, save the girl and find the family treasure.

It’s light family fare, but it’s still marvellously entertaining with a snappy script that cracks wise, Bob Hope-style (naturally), impressive sets, mattes and lighting (Oscar winner Charles Lang was the cinematographer) that create a suitable ‘haunted house’ ambiance. The special effects - particularly the ‘ghost walk’ - are still quite impressive and Noble Johnson as the zombie is really very creepy indeed.

Goddard herself is not quite the woman in distress that some may expect. She screams to order, certainly, but she also brings an eye-flashing feistiness to the character that’s quite refreshing. Though, it has to be said, it is typical of some of the better films of the period. The ’40s, I think, provided a bumper crop of fantastic roles for women, at a time when, by sheer necessity, women were coming into their own in a society at war. Ironically, as the decade faded so did the gorgeous Ms Goddard’s star. A star that burned for a relatively short time, but wonderfully bright.

You’ll find a decent supporting cast too, among them; Richard Carlson, Anthony Quinn, Paul Fix and Robert Ryan’s first ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ screen appearance.

Universal’s R1 DVD of Paramount’s The Ghost Breakers is again pretty impressive for a 66-year-old black and white film; it’s very clean and tidy with decent contrast and no evidence that I could see of any obtrusive edge-enhancement. The soundtrack is similarly free of any clicks, or distortion with clear dialogue and an atmospheric score by Ernest Toch.

All that and Paulette Goddard in a bathing costume? A no-brainer, gentle reader…

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