Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sony remasters its top Kim Novak gems for this nicely appointed disc set, a collection graced with the presence of the legendary actress herself. This is indeed a unique occasion, as the wisely privacy-minded Ms. Novak has made very few personal appearances since retiring from the screen. We've known her only through her glamorous film roles and not through a publicity smokescreen or a history of self-promotion. The result is that the captivating star of great pictures like Vertigo still retains the power to fire our imaginations. A potent 1950s sex symbol, Novak is a class act all the way.
The movies in Sony's The Kim Novak Film Collection take her appeal in four different directions. Picnic gives Novak her most iconic role. Madge Owens is the Kansas high school prom queen desperate to escape her identity as the 'local beauty'. Madge's mother Flo (Betty Field) wants to hurry her marriage to the local rich kid Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), but Madge unconsciously envies her brighter, less dazzling sister Millie (Susan Strasberg), who hates small town life and wants to run away to New York to "write books to shock everybody". Meanwhile, the spinster schoolteacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russell) is living another female nightmare -- well into middle age, she's desperate to marry the local merchant Howard Bevans (Arthur O'Connell).
The catalyst arrives in the form of Hal Carter (William Holden), a former college buddy of Alan's who tells spicy tales of bumming around Hollywood and wants to beg Alan's dad for a job. Hal talks big but can't hide the fact that he's a bum and will have to start as a laborer. That doesn't decrease his appeal to Madge, much to the horror of her mother. Hal's virility also upsets Rosemary, who causes a scene at the grand Labor Day picnic that gets them all into trouble. The film's classic scene is an almost magical evening dance at the picnic. Hal and Madge suddenly know that they're fated for each other, in a relationship with little hope for a future.
Made on location at great expense, Picnic is an exceptional Columbia film. Cinematographer James Wong Howe's warm, diffuse colors give the show a special look for its year (1955), transforming the harvest picnic into a painfully poignant ritual for those in desperate need to change their lives. Director Joshua Logan handles the actors extremely well, and the camera blocking is worked out to perfection. The superb dialogue by William Inge, the original author of the Broadway play, gives William Holden a terrific opportunity to show how appealing he can be as a tough-guy loser. We soon forget that Holden is at least ten years too old to play Hal. Kim Novak's part seems almost autobiographical -- the deceptively "shallow" girl weary of being told she's beautiful.
It's said that Inge adapted Picnic and Splendor in the Grass from real events he witnessed back in Independence, Kansas -- tragedies that befell admired young high school celebrities. He stirred up resentment when the locals recognized the original cases. Picnic has dramatic teeth because we know that Flo Owens, the abandoned mother, is almost certainly correct in trying to stop her daughter from leaving: Hal and Madge's passion will almost certainly collapse in poverty, gambling, or liquor. That's apparently what happened in real life. But Madge resolves to take her chances with the cards she's dealt. Inge gives his most hopeful thoughts to the sweet lady next door, Helen Potts (Verna Felton). She's an elderly woman taking care of an even older mother, and locked away from opportunities of life and love. Helen gives Madge her unspoken blessing -- she knows that a woman must follow her heart, one way or another.
Sony's DVD of Picnic is an improvement on their earlier widescreen disc, with softer colors and less grain. Some fading has occurred but the digital restoration is remarkably effective.
Picnic shares a disc with Novak's next effort, 1957's Jeanne Eagels. A favorite of Novak fans, the B&W film is a backstage biography of the legendary stage actress (Rain) who made only a few movies before dying in 1929 under odd circumstances. Jeanne must fight to win a job with sideshow promoter Sal Satori (Jeff Chandler), who turns out to be both a good manager and companion. As happens in the world of show biz, they split up when Jeanne finds fame and fortune on Broadway. She evolves into a complicated, troublesome star who plays the celebrity role to the hilt, all the while haunted by self-destructive, irrational fears.
Producer-Director George Sidney pulls out all the stops to make Jeanne Eagels a glamorous vehicle for Novak's talents. The actress looks marvelous throughout, from her revealing carny costumes to carefully stylized garb and makeup befitting a 1920s superstar celebrity -- lots of eye makeup, beautiful hats framing her face, etc. Detractors may fault the lack of depth in Novak's performance, but she's particularly good when portraying Eagels on stage. Novak's awareness of the pitfalls of star chemistry combined with an interesting neurotic quality (best recognized by critic Raymond Durgnat) makes her fascinating to watch. Jeanne Eagels is perhaps the least of the films in this collection but it remains a dazzling visual showcase film for Kim Novak's visual possibilities.
This transfer is a real beauty, with Robert Planck's sharp cinematography all but embracing Kim Novak in every scene. This first disc contains trailers for both films and two attractive extras. In an interview featurette, author Steven Rebello talks at length with Ms. Novak about her career. She began in refrigerator commercials, an interesting "comment" on her image as the 50s "cool" sex symbol. Ms. Novak offers a number of memories and observations about Picnic. The featurette only shows the actress in long shot, painting in her studio. By avoiding the Hollywood rat race, she seems to have carved out a rewarding life for herself.
The interview continues on a select scene commentary for Jeanne Eagels. Ms. Novak talks at length about the tragedy of Jeff Chandler and her approach to the character of the demanding star. Novak tells Rebello that she herself was never the kind of imperious star that made frivolous demands and kept underlings hopping ... and then comes back with the admission that she sometimes was!
Pal Joey is another George Sidney effort adapted from the 1940 Broadway musical that had made Gene Kelly a star. Pushed and pulled out of shape to accommodate the requirements of its stellar cast -- especially Frank Sinatra -- Pal Joey has its own glossy appeal. Originally a womanizing heel who uses both a socialite and stenographer as a path to getting his own night club, Joey has been transformed into a more sympathetic Frank Sinatra clone. Although much of the bite of John O'Hara's original has been left behind, the film offers Sinatra singing more Rodgers and Hart standards (The Lady is a Tramp). The colorful, classy cinematography is a treat -- many shots look as though they could be Sinatra album covers from the period. Some Sinatra fans consider this his best film role.
Besides making Joey a nice guy, the adaptation reinvents socialite Vera Simpson (Rita Hayworth) as an ex-burlesque queen. Showgirl Linda English (Kim Novak) tempts Joey in a scene that's at least verbally sexy. Everybody gets to sing and dance although Novak's singing voice is dubbed. With a couple of characters dropped and an entire blackmail scheme eliminated, Pal Joey becomes a Sinatra star vehicle plain and simple. Among the supporting players, Barbara Nichols has some nice moments as another showgirl.
This new transfer is much nicer than grainy Sony disc from about ten years ago. Colors pop quite beautifully, giving Novak's close-ups an almost hallucinogenic quality. Although Rita Hayworth has more depth as an actress, Novak's youth has the edge in the glamour department.
The Steven Rebello-hosted extras really hit their stride for Pal Joey. The discussion starts off with Jean Louis' gowns -- Novak remembers taking a big interest in her clothing and participating in the design process. Rebello also solicits comments on Novak's preference against wearing bras. We then see quite a lot of Novak's beautiful home on a river, and hear more about her happy life in an artist's colony. Her bedroom features her own painted murals.
The select-scene commentary aligns nicely with its subject matter, with Novak discussing her dubbed singing and the experience of working with Sinatra. She remembers a marked change in Sinatra's attitude from The Man with the Golden Arm. Novak explains that her complicated dance number with Hayworth was ruined when Frank arrived and cut out moves and bits he didn't like or didn't want to learn. In the finished film, the number is pretty ragged.
1958's Bell, Book and Candle re-teams the stars of Hitchcock'sVertigo in a quirky romantic comedy that plays like a do-over to allow Kim Novak and James Stewart a happier finish. Beautiful, mysterious art gallery proprietress Gil Holroyd (Novak) is actually a practicing witch. She resorts to a love charm to attract Shep Henderson (James Stewart), prying him away from his icky fianceť Merle (Janice Rule, wonderful in the thankless role). Less like Burn Witch, Burn and more like TV's Bewitched, witchcraft here is an apparently non-Satanic lifestyle. Gil's Aunt Queenie (Elsa Lanchester) and her own brother Nicky (Jack Lemmon are a happy-go-lucky Greenwich Village practioners that limit their magic to petty ends -- Nicky can't find a good job. Nicky foolishly helps phony occult writer Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs) learn about real witchcraft, which threatens to expose all of them.
Of course, romantic problems arise when Gil breaks the rules of witchcraft by falling in love with her new 'enchanted' boyfriend, and regrets not winning him the honest way. This is of course foolish, as any breathing man would crawl through fire for a date with Gil, who is a knockout in her glamorous hip-chick costumes.
Kim Novak takes to the barefoot Bohemian style quite well, even with a pair of painted eyebrows that look more like giant commas come to roost. Stewart exercises his comedy skills without resorting to Harvey- type slapstick. His late night snuggling scenes with Novak equate romantic infatuation with magical enchantment. Gil and Shep indeed make a very attractive couple, and the picture works. Hermoine Gingold adds spice playing an even more adept spell-caster than Novak's Gil.
In the accompanying featurette Kim Novak sticks to standard praise to talk about her co-stars Lemmon and Kovacs but assures us that she recognized a fellow 'real person' in James Stewart, a man as comfortable "as a pair of old slippers". Novak also cops to loving the witchcraft angle -- she obviously delighted in working with Gil's 'familiar', a Siamese cat named Pywacket.
1959's Middle of the Night is a heavy but rewarding drama from Paddy Chayefsky, who adapts his own play. Set in a somewhat depressing vision of the New York garment district, the show is about aging widower Jerry Kingsley (Fredric March) and his unstable relationship with the young Betty Preisser, his secretary (Novak). Betty is divorced from George, a musician (Lee Phillips) and has trouble making decisions. Her planned marriage to Jerry meets plenty of resistance from her mother (Glenda Farrell) and she sometimes feels like getting back together with George. Meanwhile, Jerry takes flak from his bossy older sister and his married daughter Lillian (Joan Copeland), who makes life difficult for her own husband (Martin Balsam) as well. Providing a negative role model is fellow garment worker Lachman (Albert Dekker) a boastful but unhappy womanizer. Does Jerry and Betty's romance have a chance?
Middle of the Night looks at a Marty- like situation from a different angle, with two well-meaning and emotionally needy people negotiating a minefield of disapproval and self-doubt. It doesn't take much to change their mood from infatuation to suspicion. Both feel like losers in love and neither wants to be hurt again. But all relationships are fraught with risk, and Jerry and Betty feel a strong attraction across the May-December gulf.
Once again Paddy Chayefsky's flair for the natural flow of dialogue pulls us deeper into the drama. Jerry's pride is too easily hurt and Betty is woefully insecure. The depth of her weakness becomes clear when the smooth-talking George shows up one evening and too easily talks his way back into her bed. The show looks at adult relationships in an adult context, and comes out a winner. This is one of Novak's finest films.
Middle of the Night benefits from the presence of quality actors like Glenda Farrell and Lee Grant. Young Jan Norris also makes a big impression as Betty's precocious younger sister -- as she did a year or two later as one of Natalie Wood's girlfriends in Splendor in the Grass.
On the set's final featurette Ms. Novak talks at length about her rewarding experience on Middle of the Night, despite the fact that it didn't do well at the boxoffice. It's her most accomplished acting part and she's perfect for it. Betty is a mess of contradictions; Kim describes her as a "baby" hungry for intimacy and a father figure. Novak tells us that the telling blocking in one scene, where Jerry handles a dress dummy as if it were Betty's body, was her idea. She also says that March had to be repeatedly reminded to respect her 'personal boundaries'!
The Kim Novak Film Collection makes us grateful that Sony is currently doing such a fine job with its library titles, when several other studios have more or less abandoned classic movies. The transfers are all exceptionally good and widescreen enhanced. The color films range from the candy-hues of Pal Joey to the softer palette of Picnic, while the stylized B&W work in Jeanne Eagels contrasts strongly with Middle of the Night's documentary look. Picnic and Pal Joey have 5.1 tracks, which may be original mixes.
Added value producer Greg Carson has scored a coup with Kim Novak's participation, and author Steven Rebello (Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho) delivers an exemplary interview portrait of this legendary shrinking violet. Ms. Novak's attitude about her own fame is very interesting. She understands the point of view of Marlene Dietrich, who worked into her seventies and then retreated forever away from cameras that would mar her near-mystical image of glamour. Kim Novak liked her Hollywood work but loves her privacy and creative life more. Her interviews convince us that she's happy with the way things worked out. She sees no need to appear on camera in close-up. For the many among us who have been enamored of her for half a century, her comments and confidences here are more than enough reward.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Kim Novak Film Collection rates:
Supplements: featurettes and select-scene commentaries with author Steve Rebello and Kim Novak. Trailers for all five films.
Packaging: Three discs in two slim cases in Card sleeve
Reviewed: July 23, 2010
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson
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