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DVD SAVANT

Clark Gable Collection
Cinema Classics Collection
The Call of the Wild, Soldier of Fortune & The Tall Men


Fox

The Call of the Wild, Soldier of Fortune, The Tall Men

starring Clark Gable

Street Date August 15, 2006
49.98 the boxed set
Not presently available separately

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Boxed collections are flying onto the market awfully fast these days. Fox's new Clark Gable set isn't three collected titles as much as it is whatever was lying around the vault with The King of Hollywood's name on it. Since Gable was of course an MGM contractee during the golden 30s, what we get are one loan-out to Darryl Zanuck when 20th Fox was just getting rolling, and two CinemaScope productions made right after MGM unloaded almost all of its contract talent. None of the films is a classic per se but all three are very entertaining and pair him with a trio of feisty costars: Loretta Young, Susan Hayward and Jane Russell. They're good enough to recommend to an audience wider than just completist DVD collectors.



The Call of the Wild
1935 / 95 81 min. / Not available separately
Starring Clark Gable, Loretta Young, Jack Oakie, Reginald Owen, Frank Conroy
Cinematography Charles Rosher
Art Direction Richard Day
Film Editor Hanson Fritch
Written by Gene Fowler, Leonard Praskins from the novel (there is a dog) by Jack London
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Directed by William Wellman

This hearty Gold Rush film is probably the second best such picture after Chaplin's The Gold Rush of ten years earlier. On a major career roll, Clark Gable braved the snows of rural Washington State for director William Wellman and delivered not only a movie but a famous off-screen romance with co-star Loretta Young. The movie barely has a passing resemblance to the famous Jack London book we all had to read in high school, but the substitute story is a good one, handled by Wellman with a good sense of adventure.

Synopsis:

Yukon miner Jack Thornton (Clark Gable) gambles away a fortune but then sets out with pal Shorty Houlihan (Jack Oakie) in search of a gold mine on a map made from a bad memory. They rescue Claire Blake (Loretta Young) when her husband appears to have perished in the harsh cold, and take her back to Skagway. There they admit that Shorty stole a peek at her map in some mail he opened, and that the three of them could find the mine and become rich. Accompanying them is Buck (Buck) a ferocious but loyal St. Bernard sled dog. The four find the mine and Shorty leaves to file the claim, but the villainous Mr. Smith (Reginald Owen) and two thugs have found Claire's husband (Frank Conroy) alive and arrive to steal the mine!

What we have here is the opposite of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre: Gold hunting makes men agreeable, friendly and willing to win and lose fortunes in high spirits. The script paints a fairly rough portrait of conditions in the great northwest, with price inflation, chiseling and claim jumping the norm. Women, if they can be found, are a precious commodity and it appears that Indian women are traded and sold as easily as sled dogs. Skagway wasn't the most PC of neighborhoods, to be certain.

Besides creating a stereotyped dastardly villain in Reginald Owen, The Call of the Wild concerns itself largely with sex in the tall trees. Gable and Okie meet and hit it off. Gable and Buck meet, and hit it off. Gable and Young meet and create sparks. Buck likes Gable but can't resist a sexy white she-wolf who knows how to make a hound dog run when she calls. Gable likes Okie, who eventually shows up with an Indian "cook" and pack mule for a companion. Gable likes Loretta, but can he keep her? Her lost hubby doesn't stay lost forever.

Animal activists may not like the scenes where rough sled dogs are pitted against one another, or even the faked scene where Buck wins a contest by dragging a sled loaded with 1,000 lbs of cargo. Actually, there's plenty to protest over the fates of thousands of "expendable" sled dogs in the northern territories, that worked like hamsters only to end up starved, mistreated and eaten by wolves or their own masters. Gable reportedly got along famously with the movie dog playing Buck, and their scenes roughhousing on cabin floors are prime doggie love stuff.

The Call of the Wild has no qualms about comparing the human romance with Buck's dalliance with a comely timber wolf. The dog can answer the howl of the loins but it's not specified whether Jack Thornton and Claire Blake surrender to the call of the wild while spending those isolated weeks together in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Today we assume that any two healthy specimens in a movie will soon trespass on R-Rated relations, but not so in 1935. Just a hint of the doe-eyed Loretta and manly Clark hitting it off is all the film needs. William Wellman is actually very tactful on this topic.

The movie ends with a strange twist. (spoiler) Jack Oakie's character Shorty was originally meant to be murdered by Reginald Owen's thugs, but after unpopular previews Zanuck decided to re-shoot an ending where Shorty (spoiler) turns up in fine condition, having filed the claim under his name and both of his companions. I suppose that (spoiler) Claire's husband will still participate in the riches (he even gives Thornton his blessing at the end) but the actual conclusion is a bit foggy. Claire and her husband will reach Skagway to find the claim already made, and she'll have to explain the whole story to him.


Fox's DVD of The Call of the Wild looks fine for a 1935 movie that's gone through some duplication. Audio is good too, thanks to a presumed aural clean-up; old TV prints were very hissy. This transfer has a "Buy War Bonds" emblem over the end title, as the movie was reissued several times and apparently cut by 14 minutes. The IMDB entry lists Katherine DeMille as "Marie", a character retained in the end cast roll but who does not appear in the movie. There's also an entry for a character described as "the pimp in Marie's room." This leads us to believe that the whole reel hacked out of the picture may have been dedicated to Jack Thornton's relationship with a woman -- perhaps one of the entertainers? -- in Skagway. One early scene begins with a harsh cut to a sign, indicating a possible point of deletion. Our finest minds will start working on the problem as soon as they find out where 90% of our defense budget went.

Celebrity biographer Darwin Porter provides a pleasant but gushy commentary that discusses at length and from every conceivable angle the on-set romance between Gable and Young that resulted in an unacknowledged child that Young later "adopted." Porter does offer plenty of good information about the filming and the actors (one of the bad guys was a descendant of the real Geronimo) but obsesses on the parallels between the lovers on the screen and the actors going through the same motions in real life. A restoration comparison, photo gallery and original trailer round out a satisfying selection of extras.



Soldier of Fortune
1955 / 96 min. / 2:35 anamorphic enhanced
Starring Clark Gable, Susan Hayward, Michael Rennie, Gene Barry, Alexander D'Arcy, Tom Tully, Anna Sten
Cinematography Leo Tover
Art Direction Jack Martin Smith, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor Dorothy Spencer
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Ernest K. Gann from his novel
Produced by Buddy Adler
Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Soldier of Fortune is a full-on Cold War movie in which a basic Terry and the Pirates idea loses ground to the need for a soap opera plot to satisfy the female audience, which in 1955 was said to dominate movie-going decision making. Set in Hong Kong but using the locale for little more than travelogue spice and its proximity to Red China, the movie is neither fully dedicated to action thrills nor torrid romance. Fox scored much, much bigger in the exotic kissing race with Love is a Many Splendored Thing.

Synopsis:

Determined Jane Hoyt (Susan Hayward) comes to Hong Kong searching for her adventurer/photographer husband Louis (Gene Barry), who has been detained for months in Red China. The American and British authorities can do nothing, but the local port police Inspector Merryweather (Michael Rennie) tries to help Jane as best he can. The nefarious underworld denizens of Hong Kong form an obstacle to Jane's mission, until she finds Hank Lee (Clark Gable), a shady businessman and all-round man of mystery who takes an immediate interest in Jane. He eventually chooses to use his expertise to free Louis, all the while hoping that he can divert Jane away from her husband's arms.

Soldier of Fortune starts like a good little early CinemaScope production, with about a minute's worth of beautiful location shots of Hong Kong. Then the story proper begins and Hong Kong becomes mere wallpaper while our actors work out their problems mostly on Hollywood sound stages. Clark Gable turns his handsome face to the camera under the main title, and soon thereafter Susan Hayward strides into a colonial hotel, inexplicably turning heads (she's not that sexy). That's all we need to know. Unfortunately, action fans lured by the no-nonsense title will find only a scattering of barroom brawls for comedy relief, and a curiously unexciting seagoing finale on a Chinese Junk spiked with a hidden antiaircraft gun, much like a Q-Ship from WW2.

The plot is a much more civilized take on Susan Hayward's Garden of Evil of the previous year, in which she enticed Gary Cooper into savage Apache territory to rescue her husband trapped in a gold mine. Fox was pairing Hayward with big names, and Soldier of Fortune's Gable does much the same thing. In fact, with a bit of dialogue doctoring the titles of the two movies could probably be swapped.

Unlike Garden, Hayward hardly gets her hair mussed on her rescue mission. She instead moves politely from bars to hotel lobbies to quaint shops and finally to Clark Gable's hilltop mansion. Gable is so impressed by Hayward (why, exactly?) that he's willing to risk his business, his life and an international incident to spring Gene Barry from the clutches of Chairman Mao. If Gable's Hank Lee were more stoic, the show could be transposed as a Budd Boetticher western about Randolph Scott rescuing a woman he loves, knowing she's meant for another man.

Gable's Hank Lee character is just as unlikely. He runs a fleet of Chinese cargo junks and engages in smuggling aided by his lackey (Jack Kruschen) and tips from a creep bar owner, Tweedie (Tom Tully). We're to understand that Hank Lee is really the mover and shaker in Hong Kong, and even upstanding cop Michael Rennie has little interest in running him down. Hank Lee lives like a maharaja on a hill with two adopted kids and one in school in America, indicating that he's a glowing success as a father figure and not an "Ugly American." Of course, he also makes a wolfish pass at Hayward the first chance he gets, because that's what he-men like Clark Gable do.

You see, Hank Lee is really a knock-off version of Pépé le Moko, the Frenchman trapped in the Casbah who pines to be back on the Parisian Metro. Hank is apparently a wanted man in America (didn't Michael Rennie's cop ever hear of extradition?) and likes to play a recording of street noise from Chicago on his stereo turntable. What a softie. Jane Hoyt gets herself in hot water with unscrupulous creeps and Hank pulls out all stops to rescue both her and her imprisoned husband, even though it means kidnapping Rennie's top lawman. What a guy.

Soldier of Fortune is less vitriolic than other contemporary thrillers obsessed with the horrors of Red China ... like John Wayne's Blood Alley or Sam Fuller's hysteria-driven comic book Hell and High Water. But it still makes it clear that Communist China is the closest thing to undiluted Evil on the planet. Louis Hoyt's largely unexplained "photographer" sneaks into the country without paperwork and is imprisoned, which seems fair enough, except that the Party interrogator intends to hold him incommunicado until he confesses to spy activities, for years if necessary. Nobody can help Hoyt except Hank Lee, as the British seem to be asleep at the switch and unwilling to start WW3 over a diplomatic trifle, and the American Consul (Robert Quarry) serves only as an official greeter. The rest of the locals are a waste of time, and the movie does waste its time with subplots in a bar frequented by Anna Sten's Russian floozie. She passes info to Commie agents! Alex D'Arcy helps Hank Lee when the chips are down, but Tom Tully's barkeep has to be threatened to come through with useful information. As for other Europeans, they're represented by Mel Welles' rotten Portuguese crook in Macao, who fleeces Jane and locks her up in his 'language school.'

In other words, Soldier of Fortune represents a conservative attitude about world politics. It's all going to Hell in a hand basket, and tough results-oriented Americans have to go it alone against hostile 'furriners' of all persuasions. Ernest K. Gann must have written better swill than this and his weird aerial soap opera The High and the Mighty. In the end, Gable escapes a Red Chinese patrol boat, mostly due to the surprise intervention of a flotilla of boats manned by his 'friends': Dimwit Hong Kong fishermen bribed with cheap Japanese watches. The end of the film's one action scene is cynical, racist and insulting to the intelligence. Gable's All-American hero hides behind innocent civilians, a tactic that conservatives prefer to associate exclsively with so-called Terrorists.

Gable and Hayward are fine and the film is passably pleasing for the pleasure of their company. The real hero is cameraman Leo Tover, for his handsome photography of Hong Kong. Watch for Hayward's double, as she never left Los Angeles; Gable and several of the other cast members did, however.


Fox's DVD of Soldier of Fortune is really beautiful in its enhanced CinemaScope format. The two-track stereo makes Hugo Friedhofer's expert score stand out. A restoration demonstration is included, but the transfer looks so good we'd think that revitalizing 50 year-old movies was no problem at all. The movie is a prime example of early C'Scope framing philosophy: An actor at each end of the wide screen and a vase, a table or a piece of set bric-a-brac in between.

Publisher and author Danforth Prince provides a lively and fact-filled commentary that goes deep into star biographies and lore, and gives blacklisted-then-cooperative HUAC victim/opportunist director Edward Dmytryk the benefit of the doubt. We also hear more than we need to know about Hayward's costumes, which Prince tells us are just like the outfits his mother used to wear. Frumpy? Hayward's dresses look just fine to me. Does Prince expect a woman begging for her husband's life to arrive dressed like Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly?

A photo gallery and trailer (intro'ed by Ernest Gann in his best Hemingway imitation) round out the extras.



The Tall Men
1955 / 122 min. / 2:35 anamorphic enhanced / not available separately
Starring Clark Gable, Jane Russell, Robert Ryan, Cameron Mitchell
Cinematography Leo Tover
Art Direction Mark-Lee Kirk, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Louis R. Loeffler
Original Music Victor Young
Written by Frank Nugent, Sydney Boehm from a novel by Clay Fisher
Produced by William A. Bacher, William B. Hawks
Directed by Raoul Walsh

The Tall Men is an amiable, sprawling cattle drive saga enlivened by a spirited cast of pros under the assured direction of Raoul Walsh. It doesn't begin to approach the stature of Red River but it does produce an agreeable pairing of Clark Gable and Jane Russell. The script only sags when it comes to the character played by Robert Ryan, who for the umpteenth time in his career doesn't get a fair break.

Synopsis:

In the harsh snow country, ex- Quantrill's Raiders Clint and Colonel Ben Allison (Cameron Mitchell and Clark Gable) turn to robbery to make ends meet. They kidnap fancy man Nathan Stark (Robert Ryan) but instead partner with him to run a cattle drive from Texas to Wyoming. Along the way Ben saves Nella Turner (Jane Russell) from an Indian attack. They're attracted to one another but she decides that Nathan's stated ambition of owning all of Wyoming is her idea of a better future. The drive weathers hardships and threats from Jayhawkers and Indians, but Clint Allison's drinking makes him into a dangerous hombre as well ... and he seems set on starting trouble with the dapper, superior Nathan.

A solid story with likeable stars, The Tall Men satisfies all the way until the final roundup. The main conflict beyond the predictable cattle-drive episodes is Ben Allison's love-hate relationship with Nella Turner. He's saved her life but she doesn't want to be the wife of a rancher intent on starting from scratch in a shack. Nella therefore spends the whole cattle drive teasing him with her voice and fleshy presence while cozying up to Robert Ryan's unemotional Nathan Stark. Between Nella's bathtub breaks and skinny dips, we admire Ben's self-control. Stark has self-control as well but it's clear that Nella is just an accessory in his business and political plans.

The movie has excellent dialogue and good supporting help; Juan García's Mexican trail chief gives Ben's cattle drive a solid foundation of vaquero authenticity. Fox utility player Cameron Mitchell is excellent as Ben's unstable brother, prancing about in his long-johns and foolishly threatening violence whenever he gets bored or drunk.

The script and direction support the Ben-Nella relationship but fumble when finishing the triangle. Robert Ryan's capitalist high hat is directed the easy way, as a simple villain. Ryan is particularly good at posing a somewhat ruthless and 'realistic' alternative to Gable's natural-man; Stark isn't a coward but he consistently chooses expedience and selfishness over other considerations: He can't be bothered to rescue Nella and he's all for paying off the thieving Jayhawkers, who want a $5,000 fee to cross the border into the wicked land of Kansas (sorry, Bill). But the movie isn't entirely fair with the Stark character. Stark has to put up with constant threats from Clint as well as Ben's disapproval. Robert Ryan exudes integrity, even when his characters have flaws, and the conclusion doesn't seem quite right. When push comes to shove, the Stark character isn't given a fair chance, and it seems false when he double-crosses Ben at the finish.

The only character who never compromises is Gable's Ben. Even Nella has to come all the way over to his side of the fence; Ben is too 'noble' to even take his decent cut of the profits. Poor Ryan is left with all the cash but mouthing an envious line about Ben Allison being "the kind of man boys dream of becoming, and old men wish they'd been."

One nice thing about The Tall Men is that Jane Russell is no decoration. She seems perfectly capable of toughing out a cold winter or winning an amorous wrestling contest with Clark Gable. Her suggestive "Tall Man" song doesn't get old, although we wonder why the men-folk aren't sneaking peeks at her enameled bathtub through that drafty wagon. Nella also has a sense of humor, although one scene misses an opportunity. With all her clothes wet, Gable inexplicably cuts her a small tree branch to exit the creek behind. We don't see how the scraggly branch is supposed to help and the film instead cuts to some vaqueros singing around a campfire. That's when we really want to see a bush in the background sneaking carefully through camp, with Jane hiding behind it!

The Tall Men is a handsome production that can certainly fill the screen when mooing cows are needed. Probably due to a lack of varied landscapes (the same ragged outcroppings show up repeatedly) the Fox special effects department comes through with a number of clever mattes, adding cloudy skies, towns, rivers and other elements to scenes on the trail. During the Indian attack and cattle stampede, the effects men also employ a number of hand-rotoscoped mattes to make it look as if masses of cattle are overrunning the Indians, trampling them to death, etc. Editor Louis Loeffler's carefully judged cuts keep these angles from revealing their weaknesses too obviously.


Fox's disc of The Tall Men looks terrific; Leo Tover is once again responsible for the beautiful outdoor vistas that dominate the film and probably made it even more attractive in early CinemaScope. This time the track has a 4.0 surround configuration in English (mono in Spanish and French).

The extras for this title are a faded original trailer and galleries of production stills. The publicity wags were still having fun billboarding Jane Russell's figure. Although the film's tagline is "They don't come any bigger than The Tall Men", at least one poster places "They Don't Come Any BIGGER!" right over an exaggerated image of smiling Jane with her chest thrust out.

It looks as if The Tall Men was planned for an earlier release with The Last Wagon and The Proud Ones, and then was yanked to bolster this Clark Gable package. Fox ditched its annoying anti-downloading message a couple of months ago but here it is back again. The disc's menus cross promote last year's western releases as well.


Fox doesn't give its Clark Gable Collection the best send-off. The overall packaging looks almost identical to boxes by Warners and Universal. A paper insert is included with a dull mini-overview of Gable's life; another promo insert for other discs misspells Ernest Hemingway's name. All of Fox's transfers are excellent however, with consistently good color. Here's hoping that they continue releasing their 50s hits, and get around to desired titles like Hell and High Water, Bigger than Life and Wild River for Region 1.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Call of the Wild rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Darwin Porter, Restoration comparison, photo gallery, trailer
Soldier of Fortune rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by Danforth Prince, Restoration comparison, photo gallery, trailer

The Tall Men rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Photo gallery, trailer
Packaging: 3 Keep cases in card box
Reviewed: August 11, 2006



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