Turner Classic Movies adds one more budget-saver to its "Greatest Classic Films" line of four-film, two-disc collections, although by this point, they might be stretching things a bit with the "classic" moniker. Do we really consider "Mogambo" to be essential cinema?
Indeed, all four of the film collected for the new "Romance" come off as also-rans in the world of classics, although results vary. "Now, Voyager" gets by (and then some) on the strength of its performances, and "Love in the Afternoon" is light enough to remain afloat long after its story runs out of steam. "Splendor in the Grass," meanwhile, is a dated bore. And then there's "Mogambo," which, well, is "Mogambo."
The set offers the films on two double-sided discs (housed in a single-wide keepcase with a hinged tray). For all four movies, these are simple re-releases of their previous individual discs, which sometimes means we're looking at nine-year-old menu screens, from a time when cast and crew filmographies were considered a worthy bonus feature.
Here are the films, one by one:
"Splendor in the Grass" (1961)
When I called "Splendor in the Grass" a dated bore a couple paragraphs north, I'm sure a good number of you cursed me under your breath. Or maybe out loud. Either way.
And yet. It's a chore to make it through this one, what with all the stagy histrionics and the pretentious envelope-pushing. It's radical in the sense that it dealt with sexual matters in a time when that wasn't common, sure, but it plays with such things with the same tone as the freshman theater major who's thrilled to discover he can now say "shit" on stage and get away with it - it's all about what's being said, and not really about how or why.
The screenplay, by playwright William Inge, spends over two hours repeating the same point: kids sure do want to have sex, boy howdy, and their parents don't like it. Fair enough, but Inge and director Elia Kazan lay it on thick with the melodrama until the movie collapses under its own self-importance. Natalie Wood, still struggling to put her child star days behind her (even though "Rebel Without a Cause" did the job just fine), gets stuck in a preposterous storyline about a teen whose pent-up sexual urges cause her to go insane; Warren Beatty plays her meathead boyfriend in a performance built entirely out of theatrical tics and Method smarminess. With all the overacting and "dirty" talk, how is this movie not considered a camp classic?
Ah, but "camp" suggests a fair amount of fun, and "Splendor in the Grass" offers none, not even in Wood's should-be-hilarious overwrought bathtub freakout. The bulk of the movie is given over to sluggish, gloomy scenes of families struggling with the dawn of the Great Depression.
Even when the film wakes up and gives us more Natalie Wood Gone Mad, there's a pompousness to it all that's hard to like. Kazan relishes in the chance to talk about sex, but it's not so much an honest discussion as it is a smug sneer toward all the squares.
Granted, Kazan is such a powerful filmmaker, and Wood and Beatty such good performers, that the film never completely collapses. It's obnoxious, but it's a well-made obnoxiousness. Personally, I'd rather have the camp.
"Love in the Afternoon" (1957)
Slightly more successful is "Love in the Afternoon," the weakest of the three Billy Wilder films released in 1957. (The others: "The Spirit of St. Louis" and "Witness for the Prosecution." not a bad year at all.) This one's a trifle, a lightweight excuse to pack up and hang out in Paris for a couple weeks. But it's a trifle that finds Wilder in the middle of one of cinema's most impressive directorial streaks; he was on too good a roll to let such fluff turn out poorly.
The film pairs Gary Cooper, as an American playboy, and Audrey Hepburn, as the wide-eyed daughter of a private investigator (Maurice Chevalier) who specializes in cheating spouses. Yes, it's definitely a stretch to imagine a fiftysomething Cooper as a globetrotting ladies' man, hopping from hotel room to hotel room, wooing a married gal in every town. And yes, it's definitely another stretch to picture the young Hepburn falling for the older Coop. But the three stars are so effortless in their charms that it hardly matters.
The real charms come from the screenplay (by Wilder and his frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond), which takes a winking approach to the matters of sex, and which spends most of its time setting up little bits of wordplay and gentle visual gags. (Most critics have compared the film to the works of Ernst Lubitsch; I can't disagree with that assessment.)
At 130 minutes, the whole thing wears all too thin, the simple plot unable to sustain that much story. But we don't mind too much. Wilder's touch is delicate, the stars' charms at full power. "Love in the Afternoon" is not a great film, but it is an endearing one.
Oh my. "Mogambo." Too long and too ridiculous, this love triangle travelogue gets the benefit of John Ford's direction and some gorgeous on-location cinematography. But really. C'mon. It's "Mogambo."
The film is a remake of the 1932 pre-Code romantic adventure "Red Dust," and the gimmick is that Clark Gable, who starred in that movie, returns two decades later to reprise his role. To his credit, he sorta pulls it off, blowharding his way through the jungles of Africa, the great white hunter torn between the affections of a brassy nightclub singer (Ava Gardner), who finds herself inexplicably in Africa, and an unhappily married socialite (Grace Kelly) who's followed her husband on safari. Gable's so larger than life in the role, we buy every word, or at least are convinced to put the words on layaway.
Not so much with the story itself, though. The screenplay's a clunker, full of scenes where Gardner gripes about life in the wild and Kelly swoons over forbidden love, and then we take a fifteen minute story break so Ford can throw in some ill-matching film of hippos and giraffes. Gardner spends one scene tangling with a baby elephant.
It's that sort of movie, the big screen adventure where the stars get to mingle with some zoo creatures, where embarrassed black extras have to dress up in ooga-booga tribal get-ups, where an entire section of film is devoted to an unconvincing battle with stock footage gorillas.
This, my dear, is camp. No holds barred, grade-A camp. The cheese is only slightly restrained by Ford, who puts enough effort into making the thing look good that we don't mind just how awful everything else gets.
"Now, Voyager" (1942)
The best film in the set is saved for last. Bette Davis earned yet another Oscar nod for her role in "Now, Voyager," and it's easy to see why: here is yet another of those movies where the dowdy loner transforms into a radiant beauty, but Davis makes certain that we believe her completely as the ugly duckling. There's some makeup trickery there, to be sure, but it's mostly in her rich performance, a matter of attitude that slowly reveals the looker underneath - and even then, Davis maintains an uncertainty that suggests the new look is merely cosmetic, not deep enough to reach her true personality.
Around this stunning role is built a rather ridiculous story: Davis plays a spinster raised under the heavy thumb of an oppressive mother (Gladys Cooper) - imagine "Precious," but with rich white people. With the help of psychiatrist Claude Rains, she manages to escape her mother's grasp and reinvents herself, meeting the charming Paul Henreid on a cruise.
But he is married, and for an ordinary film, this would be enough. In fact, it's already plenty. But the script keeps going and going, and soon Davis becomes something of a nurse to Henreid's dowdy daughter (Janis Wilson), perhaps hoping to rescue the girl before the girl's life turns out like her own - although Henreid doesn't know it.
It's all far more complicated than it needs to be, and at two hours, the story could stand a trim or two. Then again, what would you cut? The soap opera of the opening scenes sets the stage for all that follows, and what follows is lovely enough that we can't stand to lose it. The film is most famous for the scene where Henreid lights two cigarettes at once, but more engaging are the moments between Davis and Wilson, two broken girls coming out of their shells together.
Video & Audio
"Splendor" and "Love" are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; "Mogambo" and "Voyager" are shown in their original 1.33:1 format. All four receive adequate transfers, mostly free of grain, completely free of digital artifacting. The colors of "Splendor" look a bit washed out, but nothing major; "Mogambo," with its more garish photography, fares better here. The black and white imagery of the other films has an attractive depth to it.
All four films feature a Dolby mono soundtrack, and all found sound just fine - no hiss, no pops, nothing problematic at all. "Mogambo" and "Now, Voyager" feature alternate French dubs. "Splendor" comes with optional English SDH and French subtitles; "Love" and "Voyager" give us English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subs; "Mogambo" has English, French, and Spanish subs.
"Splendor in the Grass" gives us the vintage Road Runner short "Beep Prepared" (6:02; 1.33:1) - a strange combo, to be sure, but a welcome one. The film's trailer (3:59; 1.85:1 anamorphic) is also included.
"Love in the Afternoon" delivers a trailer (3:02; 1.85:1) and those darn cast and crew highlights.
"Mogambo" skips the filmographies and gives us just the trailer (3:22; 1.33:1).
"Now, Voyager" goes the filmographies and trailer (2:17; 1.33:1) route while adding an awards rundown and, better, six audio tracks (15:38 total) featuring music and outtakes from Max Steiner's original recording sessions.
I'm well aware that if you've read this far, you quite likely enjoy these four films more than I do. Still, there's little need to pick this up unless you absolutely love all four titles and haven't yet added them to your library. With nothing added to the original releases and not much from the actual films to demand repeat viewings, you'll do fine to either track down the individual titles you enjoy for sale or rent. This set? You can Skip It.