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DVD SAVANT

Breakfast at Tiffany's


Breakfast at Tiffany's
Paramount Centennial Collection
1961 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 115 min. / Street Date January 13, 2009 / 24.99
Starring Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen, Martin Balsam, Mickey Rooney, VilAllongA (José Luis de Villalonga), , John McGiver, Alan Reed, Dorothy Whitney, Stanley Adams.
Cinematography
Franz Planer
Film Editor Howard Smith
Original Music Henry Mancini
Written by George Axelrod from the novel by Truman Capote
Produced by Martin Jurow, Richard Shepherd
Directed by Blake Edwards

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Breakfast at Tiffany's is a sixties milestone that captured the imagination of a certain part of the population that craved stylishness and independence, the glamour of the classy New York culture that revolved around show biz and cocktail parties. Truman Capote purists complain that the movie is a bastardization of Truman Capote's 1958 novel while others maintain that it follows the story quite closely. With Blake Edwards directing a screenplay adaptation by George Axelrod, the movie shifts erratically between bittersweet drama and slapstick comedy. Despite some egregious racial stereotyping, many who were of college age in 1961 considered Tiffany's the height of sophistication.

Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn in her signature performance) is a "gentleman's escort", not technically a call girl but certainly mistaken for one by some of her dates. She lives a New York fantasy in a brownstone walk-up with a cat for a companion. With no secure income she's managed a world-class wardrobe. Holly skips along with the skills of a social butterfly, hosting Manhattan's hippest cocktail parties. The film dodges specifics on how Holly pays for all this; we repeatedly hear that she "accepts" fifty dollars from her dates whenever she goes to the powder room. She's essentially a kept woman, kept by no man in particular.

The movie downplays the frustrated men that pound on her door or throw fits in her apartment, apparently upset that they haven't gotten more for their money. Holly is popular and has connections with "in" people including a Hollywood agent, O. J. Berman (Martin Balsam), who once promoted her as a starlet. She refuses to become emotionally involved with acquaintances because her goal is to marry a millionaire. Too slippery to pin down, Holly answers direct questions with quirky humor; when in a bad mood she complains about having a case of the "mean reds".

Holly Golightly's spirit and style finds perfect expression in the film's opening sequence on Fifth Avenue. Fresh from an all-night date and wearing a cocktail dress and dark glasses, Holly pays a dawn visit to Tiffany's jewelry store, eating a pastry while browsing at the display windows. It's an arresting scene made iconic with the addition of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's smooth ballad Moon River. Ten years before, the image of a gold digger worshipping diamonds was a satiric cliché in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, itself a holdover joke from the Roaring Twenties. Serious looks at Manhattan playgirls usually had heavy moral punishments at the end, even in pre-code movies. Busby Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1935 switches from comedy to horror to trace the downfall of its "Broadway Baby". Capote's novella took place in the 1940s; he saw Marilyn Monroe as his ideal Holly Golightly.

The movie leaves some of the more adult content intact but makes radical changes to the tone of the original. In the story, writer and Capote substitute Paul Varjak (George Peppard) was a friendly observer and sometime companion for Holly. In the movie their relationship becomes a conventional romance. Paul is a gigolo kept by the wealthy "2-E" (Patricial Neal), a character not in the book. The similarly sordid situations are the basis for bonding. Holly encourages Paul to write and Paul tries to penetrate Holly's unbreakable, glib attitude. They're both essentially lost souls, but Hollywood lost souls suffering in fine clothes. They aren't concerned about the rent or social condemnation. Nobody even worries about growing old.

In the 1960s Blake Edwards comedies were considered the height of sophistication. Henry Mancini's bouncy music kept spirits high in the Pink Panther series, that seemingly could do no wrong. I remember audiences laughing consistently at The Great Race and The Party. Today these films mostly just sit there, as we remember how funny they seemed when new. Tiffany's party scene must have delivered the desired fantasy image of the moment. It still gets off to a good start, with hostess Holly setting the "anything goes" vibe by greeting her guests in a bed sheet -- which Hepburn transforms into a designer fashion. But from then on it's a series of silly visual puns, with people crawling on the floor and kissing in the bathtub. One woman becomes a running gag, laughing at herself in the mirror and then bawling her eyes out. Holly accidentally sets a woman's hat on fire with her cigarette holder, and then douses the flame with a spilled drink, just as unknowingly.

Edwards' attempt to be carefree is pretty stiff, but Holly's penchant for kooky behavior definitely points to the future and Richard Lester, etc. Edwards and Axelrod's attitudes were formed in the 1940s and their idea of wacky anarchy is the kind one would find in the pages of Playboy. Holly and Paul make a day trip to play cute with a clerk at Tiffany's. They shoplift at a five 'n' dime store just for fun, to distinguish themselves from square society. Wow, that's some rebellion you got goin' there, worshipping Tiffany's while pilfering from the low-end retailer.

Holly's idea of a meaningful confrontation with society is to act up in the Public Library, to show how her spirit contrasts with the stuffy librarians trying to shut them up. These antics now ring false, making Holly and Paul seem less soulful and more callow. In the more serious scenes Paul and Holly's common attitude is self-contempt; the filmmakers must have felt compelled to "balance" the film's tone with comedy relief.  1

People who dislike Breakfast at Tiffany's look no farther than the film's biggest stumble, the casting of Mickey Rooney as a buck-toothed, "funny Jap" stereotype, a surreal miscalculation that would confuse Luis Buñuel. I don't remember anybody complaining about it in 1961. There's not much to say about it, except that some dumb mistakes are more painful than others. A little more of "Mr.Yunioshi" and Tiffany's would be unwatchable.

The comedy miscalculations can't bring down the very well done scenes that outline Holly's background before she came to Manhattan to seek her fortune. A character played by Buddy Ebsen's turns up to reveal that Holly, beneath her chic exterior and clever patter, is a desperate escapee. This revelation deepens Holly and Paul's need for one another -- even though Holly persists in pursuing a wealthy Prince Charming to solve her problems. The glamorous Paul and Holly are very rare types -- a glamorous mix of unworthy values, triumphing over low self-esteem.

Alan Reed (the voice of Fred Flintstone) has a nice scene as a gangster Holly visits in Sing Sing prison, another of her paid services that's too good to be true. Ebsen and Ms. Neal anchor the dramatic aspect of the movie while John McGIver shows up as a cooperative, amenable Tiffany's clerk. "Orangey" the cat plays the tabby known simply as "cat" because Holly avoids relationships that might interfere with her social climbing. The finale invented for the movie is a cloying fabrication that succeeds by exploiting audience fondness for adorable pets. Thematically it's all there, with the lovers affirming their commitment in a rainy alley with a soaking wet cat. The ending is perfectly balanced between throwback romanticism and slick calculation. The earnest actors -- particularly the wet cat -- pull it off.  2


Paramount's Centennial Collection DVD of Breakfast at Tiffany's does not claim to be a new transfer so we'll assume that it's been repeated from the 45th Anniversary edition released just two years ago. The picture is bright, sharp and very colorful. Allotting a second disc for the extras could have allowed a higher bit rate on the feature, but the disc doesn't mention any such improvement. As with all of Paramount's reissues of their top-of-the-line library product, we would have preferred to see a Blu-ray release as well.

The extras are split between new and old offerings. Well-known facts and anecdotes about the movie are repeated on an audio commentary (by producer Richard Shepherd), the featurettes and a handsome insert booklet.

The older featurettes benefit from pleasant interviews with director Edwards, star Patricia Neal, Hepburn's son and other personalities. Director Edwards shows class, taking the rap for his "Mr. Yunioshi" mistake without expressing bitterness or deflecting responsibility. The brisk making-of docu covers the show nicely, while other short pieces celebrate Audrey Hepburn as a style sensation and recount the history of Tiffany's Jewelers. A separate fragment contains a letter Hepburn wrote to extol the excellence of the store.

The new extras are more slickly produced. A Golightly Gathering recreates the famous party scene by with many of the original cast members. Light and cheerful, the short subject gives fun actors like Joan Staley a chance to take center stage. A Henry Mancini piece is a loving tribute from his family and associates. The family contributes plenty of photos and home movies; Mancini's daughter remembers her father winning an Oscar, which made her exclaim, "Now I'll get to meet the Beatles!" An Asian Perspective falls over backwards, frontwards and every which way to put a positive spin on Mickey Rooney's yellowface role. By the finish, the attractive Asian actor-interviewees are congratulating Paramount on its courage and integrity.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Breakfast at Tiffany's rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent DD 5.1 + restored mono in English, French & Spanish
Supplements: Audio Commentary - with producer Richard Shepherd, Featurettes: A Golightly Gathering -- the party scene; Henry Mancini: More Than Music - on the beloved film composer; Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective - A critique of outdated Asian stereotyping; Behind the Gates -- Paramount Studio tour, Breakfast at Tiffany's: The Making of a Classic; It's So Audrey! A Style Icon; Brilliance in a Blue Box - a brief history of Tiffany & Co.; Audrey's Letter to Tiffany - Hepburn's letter to Tiffany & Co. for the company's 150th anniversary in 1987. Trailer, photo Gallery.
Packaging: two discs in keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: January 12, 2009

Footnotes:

1. Moon River is a fine song that anchors the film's romantic foundations, but the lyric "my Huckleberry Friend" throws me every time. Rivers and Huckleberry and "waiting 'round the bend" bring up Huckleberry Finn, but I just don't see any connection. In the five 'n' dime Holly briefly dons a Huckleberry Hound mask, which is probably the literal reference .... but why does Holly then sing the lyric before her shoplifting adventure?

An alternate explanation from Doug Wilming, 1.13.09: "In reference to your question about the term "huckleberry" in the lyrics of Moon River, "huckleberry" sometimes means "the right person for the job". In Tombstone, for example, Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday tells one of the Clantons, I'll be your huckleberry. At least that's how I interpret it'.

More thoughts from Bill Wind, 1.13.09: "After reading your footnote I would like to offer my own thoughts about the song I consider the best ever written for a motion picture. Few would deny that Johnny Mercer was one of the great songwriters of the 20th Century --- in my opinion, his range of expression and his skill with a lyric are exceeded only by Cole Porter. I still marvel at his upbeat work in Li'l Abner and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; although neither show produced a hit song, his lyrics work perfectly within the context of those shows. At the other end of the spectrum is Moon River, a wistful piece of almost pure poetry, that, like the best poetry, is open to many interpretations. I see the song as Holly's longing for the true freedom of her childhood, as opposed to the phony "free spirit" attitude she now lives by.

As for the lyric "my huckleberry friend", it has been the subject of much discussion over the years. Other songwriters have praised it; Henry Mancini has said it gave him chills and reminded him of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn's trip down the Mississippi; Mercer himself said he was free-associating about the South and his childhood when he would pick berries in the fields. I don't believe there is any literal interpretation of the lyric.

For me, the later scene with the Huckleberry Hound mask refers back to the song and re-enforces the overall sense of longing for a lost childhood.

By the way, one of the Johmmy Mercer biographies (recently reprinted) is titled "Our Huckleberry Friend". -- Bill Wind, Lakewood, Colorado
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2. "Orangey" the cat is credited with a pile of class Hollywood credits over a time span that would stretch any normal tabby's nine lives. He's reported to be the top cat in both This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

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