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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Hugh Hefner
Hugh Hefner
Other // Unrated // October 21, 2014
List Price: $18.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Kurt Dahlke | posted November 4, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
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Tony Palmer's 1973 Film About Hugh Hefner:
The full title is Tony Palmer's 1973 Film About Hugh Hefner: The Founder and Editor of Playboy. The title is as dry as this hour-long documentary gets. One imagines it would be difficult to make a dry documentary about someone like Hef, the man who brought the skin-mag to the world. (If one tried, I'm sure the results would be unintentionally hilarious.) Palmer opts for a little whimsical cheekiness, setting his film in a class by itself: fascinating, subversive, funny, sad. Get ready to play hard.

Hefner's story is a pure rags-to-riches parable, and a perfect one to go hand-in-hand with the death of the American Dream. Raised in a large, hardworking family, young Hugh seldom saw his father, and when not working himself, withdrew into a world of comic strips of his own creation. After giving family life a try - "wasn't for me," says Hefner - he struck on the idea of starting a men's magazine. The rest is history - history you'll have to look up on your own, as Palmer isn't so much interested in telling us how the magazine got up and running, or even why naked ladies became its Franklin Mint. Palmer is way more interested in what makes Hef tick, and what Playboy the entity really is.

Other than naked ladies (photographed and scrutinized meticulously) and frequently top-notch writing (strangely ignored in the documentary) Playboy is an imaginary way of life, one Hefner idealistically offers young men of the world. My sarcastic editorializing mirror's Palmer's own. His movie starts with bustling scenes of the magazine printed and assembled, set to pompous, heraldic music, setting the template to present Hefner as the Emperor in his kingdom - the extent to which the emperor has any clothes is delivered in pretty easy-to-read code.

As Hefner editorializes through his version of his early life and the meaning of the magazine, Palmer presents a series of images to prefigure Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous. Hef notes his "work hard, play hard" philosophy, while wondering why there aren't any other mainstream magazines that espouse the hedonistic, playful lifestyle. Meantime, we're treated to an actual disco-dance party (with 8-track cassettes!) at 33,000 feet, in the jet-black Playboy jetliner, among many other 'gee-whiz, Hef is the biggest college freshman in the world' moments. (Other highlights include the state-of-the-art turntable/massive VCR console in the bedroom of his Chicago fortress, and collection of exotic animals at the Playboy Mansion. Once you've seen Hef get playful with a monkey, you've seen it all.)

Palmer not only lets Hef opine, he catches him in slightly-less-guarded 'candid' moments: playing foosball and bowling, playing backgammon on the plane, or trying to understand some new design concept. (He even manages to sneak in a lengthy segment in which it appears Hugh has a cold sore!) Throughout, satirical music plays. Hef in his shuttered Chicago Fortress (the windows are covered by metal shutters, I think) becomes a Bond Villain, spouting about how he 'created his own world,' while ominous spy music plays. Palmer gently draws a conclusion about this formerly introverted young man-turned already out of touch, disturbingly paternal megalomaniac: he's sad and his dream world is a sham.

Or maybe not. One thing is for sure, no matter how you choose to read Palmer's fantastic documentary. The Playboy world, where you work hard and then play hard in your mansion with a man-made lagoon and supplemental secret stairways, is not a world you can inhabit, no matter how much Hef would like you to believe that. No, your American Dream has simply become avoiding debt. Those girls are out of your league, too. Recommended

The DVD

Video:
Presented in anamorphic widescreen formatted for your 16 x 9 television, Tony Palmer's 1973 Film About Hugh Hefner (hereafter referred to as TP73FAHH) looks a fright. I'm not sure how this doc was sourced, there sure isn't any information on the case, but it almost looks as though much of it may have been simply shot directly off a TV screen with a camcorder. Brightly lit scenes fare better, but overall this is a hugely grainy, soft picture, lacking in detail, with occasional film-damage, and a sort-of too-digital look regarding the transfer. That said, I reckon this is somewhat of a rarity, and it isn't unwatchable at all - just nowhere near standard picture quality. You can also opt to watch in 4:3 - freeing up information at the top and bottom of the screen, and presenting a smaller, slightly better looking picture.

Sound:
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo has stood the test of time better than the video has. Hef and his compatriots are all easy to understand, and there isn't any decay or snap-crackle to worry about. The music sounds decent as well, but is mixed a few degrees too loud as compared to dialog. Music and dialog never overlap, but when someone stops talking, prepare for a blast of sound.

Extras:
The DVD is barebones as a melon-farmer. A two-page insert is the only extra, which simply prints quotes from the movie in the center, while blurbing 5 other documentaries in this series on the back. (The one about Peter Sellers sounds extra good.)

Final Thoughts:
Palmer's 53-minute documentary about Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy Magazine, presents its scathing critique of Hefner with such love and cheek it's impossible not to love it right back. Palmer gently presents Hefner as a super-rich, deluded man-boy, but you can still enjoy the wacky fruits of his labor. Amazingly assured and funny filmmaking that should be Highly Recommended, but for its AV quality and lack of extras, is still Recommended.

- Kurt Dahlke

~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com

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