In a filmed interview included on several of these discs, coproducer Edie Landau explains that the American Film Theater was an experiment that lasted two years and fourteen films. She and her late husband, producer/entrepreneur Ely Landau had dreams of changing the way movies were distributed and raising the quality of entertainment. Even though the shows had only limited theater accessibility and irregular video distribution (until now), they stand as an impressive achievement that recorded for posterity two-score important productions.
Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9
Street Date November 11, 2003
Boxed set of 4 discs: $89.95
We're used to seeing the occasional Broadway musical recorded on tape for PBS. In the fifties it was common for the networks to do quality theater presentations almost weekly. The Landaus owned a New York television station (that later became the public station) and were sufficiently committed to the art of the theater to put full plays on the air, full length and without interruptions. The 1960 The Iceman Cometh was one of these. They also produced two movies, A Long Day's Journey into Night and The Pawnbroker, but the experience of distributing their own feature-length theatrical show on the life of Martin Luther King is what first gave them the idea of a subscription movie series.
The movies were made cheaply (average = $850,000) with top directors and talent working for very little money. They made a remarkable eight movies in one year, which shows what can happen when motivated people come together and money is made a second priority.
Fifty theaters were hired across the country to show the films on a subscription basis - only for a couple of days with reserved seats. The ticket money collected up front, combined with American Express as a business partner, made the expensive filming possible. Unfortunately, the first year the organization was a disaster. In her interview (included on several of the discs) Edie Landau explains that the premiere of their first film in their most prestigious venue, was accidentally oversold, so American Express organized other theaters and hired buses to handle the overflow. But almost nobody showed up at the main event, because none of the tickets had been mailed out!
The percentage of 'keeper' movies here is high, mainly because of the talent involved. Watching Brock Peters act or seeing Joseph Losey's careful direction, we don't have to make allowances. Galileo and Philadelphia, Here I Come! are smash successes, while Lost in the Stars has a shaky conception. The only disappointment is Jacques Brel, which suffers from a dated music-video style. This is unfortunate, since it preceded music videos by five years.
Happily, Kino has provided good text extras and a couple of fascinating interviews spread across the final four discs in this boxed set that completes the series.
1974 / 138 min. / Galileo Galilei / Indiv: $29.95
Starring Topol, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Michael Gough, Patrick Magee, Tom Conti, Margaret Leighton, Michael Lonsdale
Cinematography Michael Reed
Production Designer Richard MacDonald
Music Richard Hartley, Hanns Eisler
Written by Barbara Bray, Joseph Losey from the play by Bertolt Brecht
Produced by Ely A. Landau, Otto Plaschkes
Directed by Joseph Losey
Bertolt Brecht's play was first written in 1938 but was changed several times, especially when adapted into English by Charles Laughton in 1947 for an acclaimed Los Angeles presentation. That incarnation was as much about the atomic bomb and scientific responsibility as it was about the 17th century Italian astronomer forced to recant by the Catholic church. Losey was finally able to make it into a film by the AFT, and this star-studded version is one of their more lauded productions.
Apparently Losey had no trouble assembling any cast he wanted, and even secured the participation of John Gielgud for just one day. Topol is wonderful as the troubled scientist who lives to regret his decision to give in to the Holy Office, but the names and associations of the rest of the cast are remarkable: Colin Blakely (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes), Tom Chatto (Quatermass 2), Tom Conti, Edward Fox, Michael Gough, Margaret Leighton (7 Women), Michael Lonsdale, Patrick Magee, Clive Revill (Avanti!) Madeleine Smith (The Vampire Lovers).
Losey's perennial production designer fashions some effective sets for the show, which doesn't hide its theatricality. The titles are played over downshots of the soundstage.
The design and direction are exemplary in their simplicity and effectiveness. It's remarkable how quickly the not-short film glides by. It is good theater aided by direction that accents the drama and avoids cinematic trimmings.
An enhanced transfer (as on all these AFT shows) makes this a front row seat experience on a large 16:9 monitor. The best extra is a lengthy Topol interview where he explains his reverence for Losey and tells the story of an unnamed actor bounced from the cast by showing up drunk.
The text extras on the play, Brecht and Losey help get a foothold on the importance and background of Galileo.
Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris
1975 / 98 min. / Indiv: $29.95
Starring Elly Stone, Mort Shuman, Joe Masiell, Jacques Brel
Cinematography René Verzier
Art Director Jean André
Editor Yves Langlois
Original Music Jacques Brel, Mort Shuman
Written by Eric Blau, Mort Shuman from their play
Produced by Paul Marshall, Claude Héroux
Directed by Denis Héroux
Mort Shuman and Eric Blau's stage show was a revue showcasing the troubadour-like ballads of Jacques Brel, with new English lyrics. As interpreted here, the revue format has the same pacing problems that a stack of music videos would have if there were not enough variety. Many of the songs are amusing or emotional, but after a while too many seem similar - a plaintive half-melody that slowly rises in intensity and volume, until the singer is practically screaming. The elaborate scene changes don't help the fact that we're not seeing live performances - the frantic singers are mouthing to playback, which robs the material of its stage immediacy.
Part of it is translation. Songwriter Brel himself appears to sing near the end, and even when I can't understand what he's saying, his beautiful delivery seems profound and touching. The English lyrics are too often cute, or shallow-deep, reaching really quickly for easy statements about love and lust, war and peace, youth and aging. We're shown a sweet-looking ancient couple for Old Folks. The literal alignment of song and subject makes me think of the many imagination-challenged student efforts in film school.
The revue format posits a group of photogenic hippies (the most nagging element here) against three main singers. Stage regular Elly Stone sings the ballads for female voice, including two further popularized by Judy Collins, Sons of and Marike. A cab driver and a soldier are the other two main 'characters.'
The semi-surreal format uses most of the clichés that would be associated with music videos five years later. Characters watch themselves in a puppet show. Inanimate objects like a war statue, come to life. Locations and identities switch constantly. Object and color symbolism are utilized with connect-the-dots simplicity. Marike has Elly Stone in a gray graveyard seeking a lost daughter, who transforms from a red-dressed girl to a red ball to a red flower, and finally to a red purse hanging on a grave marker. Similarly heavy is Sons of, which gives us three crucified men on a rocky hill.
The French Canadian production has many exterior locations, and uses process work to combine scenery with stylized sets. A few work, but most are obvious and intrusive, like paste-ups applied without the necessary finesse. Some effects work adds dirt to the image as well. It's a daunting budgetary problem, considering the huge number of locations and props here. Time was obviously dear, as we often see the cast bravely singing their hearts out in what look like windy and freezing conditions.
Some of Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris is excellent - it's just that the revue format is a tough one to translate to a movie. I think this one would be stronger on live television.
Philadelphia, Here I Come!
1974 / 95 min. / Indiv: $29.95
Starring Donal McCann, Siobhan McKenna, Des Cave
Cinematography Mike Reed
Written by Brian Friel
Produced by Jane C Nusbaum
Directed by John Quested
Probably the most moving of these four selections is this touching story of the last day of a young man leaving his Irish home for a new life with relatives in America.
Donal McCann is the 'public' Gar, the one who has to deal with his rigid, silent father. His stepmother X is played by Siobhan McKenna. Always alongside the 'public' Gar is the 'private' Gar (Des Cave), Gar's conscience and anger-management alter ego, there to help guide and criticize him.
At age 25, Gar has an offer from his aunt to come work in a Philadelphia hotel. Besides the bitterness of a loveless childhood with his father, he's not gotten over a failed relationship with Kate (Fidelma Murphy), the daughter of a local senator (Liam Redmond) who he almost married, until he let self-doubt get in his way.
Unlike the superficially similar The Subject Was Roses, Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come doesn't reach for emotional fireworks. Gar's anxiety and discontent come to the surface only once or twice and always at inopportune times, such as when he sees his old girlfriend on the street with her new husband. There are no screaming fits where everyone 'gets the truth out.' Instead, we have Gar's 'private' side to provide us with a running commentary, an interior monologue of his thoughts and feelings.
Even the expected father-son reconciliation is handled with unexpected honesty. Gar discovers that his most precious childhood memory, the link between himself and his dad that he thought was unbreakable, is something his father doesn't even remember. Maybe he made it up out of loneliness. It's very touching.
This filmed play retains Gar's phantom double but otherwise is staged in a real Irish village and has no problem with the transformation. It's a natural movie and doesn't seem forced. We're very interested in whether or not Gar goes to America, and we care about the possibilities in his future, even as we slowly warm up to the people he may be leaving behind.
Lost in the Stars
1974 / 97 min. / Indiv: $29.95
Starring Brock Peters, Melba Moore, Raymond St. Jacques, Clifton Davis
Art Director Jack Martin Smith
Editor Walter Hannemann
Music Kurt Weill
Choreographer Paula Kelly
Written by Alfred Hayes from the play by Maxwell Anderson from the novel by Alan Paton
Produced by Ely A. Landau
Directed by Daniel Mann
This show seems more of a movie adaptation than the others, and perhaps shows the Landau's ambitions to do more than filmed plays. It was shot in Africa and on soundstages at 20th Fox. The text of the play is all delivered as if in a normal film. Everything is so naturalistic, the actors' songs and off-stage choir pieces seem more intrusive.
The story is a direct telling of Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country, a plea for justice and tolerance under Apartheid, and it's still powerful. Brock Peters (Major Dundee) is a rock of integrity as Stephen Kumalo, a country minister come to Johannesburg to find a wayward son. Melba Moore plays his son's wife Irina, lost and pregnant in a shanty town. The little story of three thieves and their foolish crime seems like something that 12 year-olds would do, and the three strapping men accused of murder during a break-in appear altogether too naïve. But Clifton Davis' Absalom is compelling.
The main subject here is an ethical question. The law condemns Absalom for his crime only because of his honesty in admitting it, spurred on by his preacher father. Always in the background is the travesty of a society that condemns an entire race to a degraded existence, while expecting that race to adhere to the niceties of law.
Lost in the Stars stays with this personal inner conflict, giving an alternate approach through Stephen Kumalo's brother John, played by Raymond St. Jacques. John does whatever is necessary to get his son off the murder charge. I can see Stephen and Absalom's moral choice being rejected by 99.9 percent of viewers today, regardless of race. Making a painful choice based on one's principles has been usurped by versions of situational ethics. The lesson here is a painful one - the cold law of the overseers is likely to reward the craven and punish the morally courageous.
The social injustice that would be emphasized by any other show is completely absent here. Stephen Kumalo is treated with respect by the whites he encounters, and the jailers are always polite and civil to Absalom. The white father of the murder victim (Paul Rogers) is bitter and even more convinced of his racist beliefs at the end. The play is timid in its politics but very honest in not confecting any sentimental reconciliation between the races.
The songs are less melodic and more of the oratorio variety ... the central title song is memorable, but most of the others fade. Seen in this realistic context, much of the music seems in the way. The ending stays true to the book, and is quite a depressing downer, beautifully acted by Peters.
Paula Kelly plays a small role and is credited with the choreography for a dance in a Johannesburg nightclub. John Williams (Dial M for Murder) plays the judge.
The text extras include the expected Michael Feingold run-down on the play, and obituaries for both Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson.
Common to three of the discs is a 26-minute interview with Edie Landau where she explains the entire genesis of the American Film Theater and its two-year 'experimental' run. Ely Landau makes a personal appearance in a filmed greeting for his subscriber audiences at the end of the first year of the series. Trailers and info for most of the fourteen AFT movies are also included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris rates:
Philadelphia, Here I Come! rates:
Lost in the Stars rates:
Common info all four titles: