Warner Bros. has pulled six features from its vault to form a Natalie Wood Signature Collection, which turns out to be a good cross-section of her career. The adorable child actress pops on screen with her little face beaming in the 1946 soap opera Tomorrow is Forever and brightens up the classics The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Miracle on 34th Street. Anybody looking at Rebel without a Cause would expect to see Natalie vaulted immediately into the front ranks of actresses, but Warners continued to assign her to TV shows and film roles supporting actors like Tab Hunter. I remember a '60s LOOK magazine article on the state of the movie industry that singled out Natalie as emblematic of Hollywood's new star elite. She was among the last actresses to advance through the studio system, and also one of the most talented.
The collection includes a couple of Ms. Wood's monster hits and efforts that show her comedic talents. Two of the pictures have already been released on DVD, but both are substantially improved re-masters.
1957 / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 106 min.
Exactly when Warner Bros. considered Natalie Wood to be top star material is hard to tell. After Rebel without a Cause and a small role in The Searchers, she labored for another year in TV shows and Tab Hunter movies. Bombers B-52 finally gives Natalie top billing, even though the movie is really about Karl Malden's character. The film's schizophrenic trailer is split between two stories -- the first half concentrating on Wood and the second on SAC's new long-range jet bombers.
The movie is one of many that Hollywood made to popularize the Air Force and justify its huge bite from the national budget. It carries the same peacetime propaganda message put forward in Paramount's Strategic Air Command: skilled airmen should stop leaving the service for more lucrative jobs elsewhere, because we need qualified Cold Warriors to preserve the American way of life.
Malden's Master Sergeant resists pressure from his gorgeous daughter (Wood), who wants him to resign so she'll be better equipped socially and economically to find the right young man. Malden changes his mind when his new commanding officer (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), a notorious Casanova, takes an interest in Wood. The portrait of life for a Flight Line Maintenance Chief is preposterous, with Malden having plenty of time to take vacations, compete in a TV quiz show and deal personally with family problems. Malden also proves to be a two-fisted hero when it comes to keeping saboteurs off the base. When the new, enormous B-52 bomber arrives, he's sorely tested to stay in the service.
Speaking of sabotage, we can't help but notice that whenever Malden gets in a jet, disastrous technical problems suddenly arise. Malden parrots the Pentagon's line about keeping America safe with a nuclear deterrent, but we wonder if he really isn't a psycho, purposely sabotaging the planes!
The movie's main appeal is its aviation hardware. Ace director Gordon Douglas can't do anything more with the material than he could with the even more propagandistic The McConnell Story; any love story entitled Bombers B-52 has to suffer from identity issues. Warners' transfer is slightly faded. Reds are vibrant but most other colors are pale and the picture looks light overall. Natalie Wood, of course, is absolutely dazzling.
Besides the trailer, Bombers B-52 features the Chuck Jones cartoon Boyhood Daze, which might have been the inspiration for A Christmas Story. Sent to his room, a little boy (named Ralphie) imagines rescuing his parents from cannibals, and saving the Earth from Martian invaders.
1960 / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 102 min.
Cash McCall sees Natalie demoted to second billing under TV star James Garner. She again serves as the love interest in a movie focused on other issues. Cameron Hawley, the author of Executive Suite, brings some convincing high-powered wheeling & dealing to this tale of a brash young millionaire who buys and sells companies, often doubling his millions in a matter of days.
Cash McCall (Garner) buys a plastics company from Grant Austen (Dean Jagger). Austen complains that those darn crippling taxes are making it impossible to do business, and thinks he's unloading a headache. But Austen doesn't realize that he's also selling a portfolio of original patents that make his company much stronger than he thought. McCall dodges a gauntlet of irate company presidents, vindicating his original judgment and seeing his way to buy out every company that threatens his interests. But his plan almost falls when Austen thinks he's been defrauded.
Cash also finds time to romance Austen's sexy daughter, Lory (Natalie Wood), with whom he had a brief, overheated encounter "last summer in Maine." Cash sweeps Lory off her feet with rides in his private airplane and the heartfelt admission that he's a wildcat dealer who loves risk. A conniving hotel manager (Nina Foch in a thankless, silly role) tries to scotch the Cash/Lory romance, to no avail.
Screenwriter Lenore Coffee makes the complicated financial intrigues both intelligible and interesting, which is no small achievement. Cash McCall is a big business fantasy that envisions a corporate raider as a modern Galahad. Cash eventually assembles a monster combine (nobody uses the word corporation, anywhere) under his personal control, with the former company presidents all his employees. What's really being celebrated is the concentration of economic power as performed by a charming opportunist. Cash seals his deal with a speech about how he really cares about the workers we never see, in the companies he trades like baseball cards -- I think Michael Moore could have given this title a really good commentary! If wonder men like Cash McCall were more than a self-serving fantasy, our economic system would by now have reshaped the world into a Utopia.
Natalie is glamorous and bright but still not the center of attention; a male actor like Garner can move from action to romance and always retain the dominant role. The supporting cast is good, especially Henry Jones as a businessman with integrity. Joseph Pevney's direction is smooth enough, but the standard high-key lighting doesn't yield many interesting images. The major exception is the flashback to the Maine summer, which perfectly captures what passed for glamorous women's magazine eroticism in the early 1960s. Cash McCall is a good movie that somehow became an obscurity.
The disc carries a trailer and the Oscar-nominated cartoon High Note.
Splendor in the Grass
1961 /1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 124 min.
This is the collection's masterpiece and perhaps Wood's best movie; we hope it will merit a Blu-ray release sooner than later. Splendor in the Grass is the third film in Elia Kazan's "Americana" trilogy that includes Wild River and America, America. Centering on sexual repression in the 1920s, screenwriter William Inge's story has similarities with his earlier Picnic and may be set in the same Kansas town. Young Wilma (Wood) is madly in love with her high school sweetheart, Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty, in his first film). Bud wants to marry and begin work as a rancher but his oil-rich father (Pat Hingle, an excellent performance) insists that he forget about girls and go to Yale. Wilma's mother (Audrey Christie, also excellent) is panicked over her daughter's status as a "good girl." Frightened by the example of his older sister Ginnie, a promiscuous flapper (Barbara Loden), Bud breaks off with Wilma. Humiliation, disappointment and her own sexual frustration drive Wilma to a nervous breakdown.
One could discuss Splendor in the Grass at length from any number of angles (the water symbolism, to begin with). It's such a superior film that we're shocked it didn't win more awards -- too dark, I suppose. Set in the year of the big stock market crash, its theme of economic disaster was remote in 1961 but seems highly topical today. Bud and Wilma's problems are universally relevant to all young people, and Wood is heartbreaking as the poor-girl princess who invests her entire being in "the special boy." That they survive as well as they do is a miracle, considering the near-absolute lack of understanding from their loved ones.
The movie abounds with fringe benefits like Zohra Lampert, Sandy Dennis, Gary Lockwood and, in a perfect bit part, Phyllis Diller as the famed Texas Guinan. Barbara Loden creates an interesting, credible portrait of a hell bent late-1920s loose girl. Kazan's staging of her scenes "with the boys" is amazingly frank. But mostly we remember Natalie's Wilma, a fragile young women victimized at a time when society's rules suppressed most natural impulses.
Although the older disc of Splendor in the Grass was acceptable, this new encoding has richer colors and fewer flaws. David Amram's melancholy music score is unobtrusive yet powerful. The film's trailer and the cartoon Beep Prepared are the disc extras.
1962 / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 143 min.
Gypsy is really Rosalind Russell's movie, and too big of a topic to cover fully in a quick review. One of the biggest Broadway successes of the 1960s, it translates to the screen fairly well, even if Mervyn LeRoy's direction is flat and stage-bound. For Natalie Wood, Gypsy marks a third triumph in her stellar progress. Finding worthy roles for actresses has never been easy and Natalie succeeded at the game longer than most. This was perhaps the apex of her career, despite a number of successes to follow.
Natalie would be asked to play "the kid" until she was almost thirty, and Gypsy once again shows her blossoming on screen. It clearly took some doing to downplay the vulgarity of the original show, the story of real life celebrity stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Louise Hovick (Wood) is the talentless daughter of Rosalind Russell's obsessed, selfish stage mother Rose. Refusing to admit that vaudeville is dead, Rose Hovick drives away a faithful fiancé (Karl Malden) as well as her "talented" daughter June (who famously became actress June Havoc).
Wood comes to the fore only in the last act, when Louise asserts her independence -- and fulfills her mother's goal of raising a headliner -- by becoming a stripper. After two hours under the smothering pressure of Mother Rose, Louise blooms from ugly duckling to a burlesque diva more glamorous than a Broadway star. Gypsy Rose Lee's act can't possibly have been this chaste, but the movie gets away with the notion that the bums in the audience are driven wild anyway. The most revealing thing about Arthur Laurents' play is that Mother Rose's moral protests vanish as soon as it looks like Gypsy will succeed -- and then Rose is unhappy because the laurels aren't for her. There's not much difference between a stage mother and a pimp, really. To survive amid the warped values of show business, troupers like June and Louise clearly need to develop tough skins.
Warners' new disc of Gypsy has also been remastered from the previous release. Originally filmed in Technirama (squeezed VistaVision), the image is sharp, bright and detailed. The two outtake musical numbers have been retained. The cartoon this time is The Pied Piper of Guadalupe.
Sex and the Single Girl
1964 / 1:85 anamorphic widescreen / 114 min.
Director Richard Quine angles to pick off a piece of Blake Edwards' moneymaking comedy success in this screwball farce "suggested" by Helen Gurley Brown's saucy best-selling book. Quine appropriates The Pink Panther's Fran Jeffries for a number of songs and throws in a very Edwards-like extended slapstick chase. Unfortunately, the chase derails what was shaping up into a passable screwball farce.
The source book is a nonfiction call for young women to pursue full lives outside the constricts of marriage, to actively pursue "love, sex, and money." The real Helen Gurley Brown became the editor of Cosmopolitan and helmed the magazine for over three decades; but the movie's writers (including Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22) invent a "liberated" young woman who really wants to ditch her career for a conventional domestic life. That the movie is amusing anyway is a testimonial to the chemistry between Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis, who turn a number of comic seduction scenes into near-classics.
The farcical setup has Bob Weston (Curtis), an unprincipled writer for the scummy tabloid magazine STOP, victimizing psychologist Helen Brown (Wood), the author of Sex and the Single Girl. Weston becomes Brown's patient, borrowing the identity of his neighbor Frank Broderick (Henry Fonda), who is having marital problems with his wife Sylvia (Lauren Bacall). Bob tries to maneuver Brown into bed, or prove that she's a virgin unqualified to give sex advice to young women. About half the scenes -- the make-out shrink sessions, some of the material with Fonda and Bacall -- are funny, but the sidebar comedy with an unfunny Mel Ferrer is deadly. Count Basie backs Fran Jeffries for the rather good song interludes. Unfortunately, that irrelevant ending chase through Los Angeles's Sepulveda Pass almost seems thrown in to help the movie avoid any real sexual content. Sex and the Single Girl is painfully dated but still enjoyable if one concentrates on the polished performances of Curtis and Wood.
Leslie Parrish is on hand as an oversexed secretary while the ancient, withered Edward Everett Horton gives a spirited performance as the publisher of the trashy magazine. Interestingly, John Belushi's crazy pilot in 1941 would seem to be based on Larry Storch's goofy motorcycle cop in this show's big chase scene -- and neither performance really works.
Inside Daisy Clover
1965 / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 128 min.
Natalie Wood took the kid-into-woman route one more time for this Robert Mulligan film, which somehow misses the mark despite being made of mostly original ingredients. Tough little impoverished teen Daisy (Wood) hangs around the "Angel Beach" pier with her dotty old ma (Ruth Gordon) until the record she sends to studio head Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer, acting like Mephistopheles) turns her into a child star. Daisy finds out what it is to become studio property. A mercenary older sister signs the contracts and collects the money while Swan exhibits Daisy at parties as his new discovery. Still a fifteen year-old punk, Daisy falls madly in love with matinee idol Wade Lewis (Robert Redford), soon revealed as a bisexual mystery man who deserts her on their honeymoon. Thrown off balance by the sexual madness around her -- Swan's loony wife (Katharine Bard) is obsessed with Lewis, and doesn't mind when her husband seduces his new star -- Daisy eventually has a nervous breakdown.
Inside Daisy Clover is an odd recreation of 1936 Hollywood with period cars but modern clothing and hairstyles. At one point Daisy is dressed in a church choir robe, just as Judy Garland was in an MGM Christmas promo short subject. The child star experience is also reflected in the presence of ex-child star Roddy McDowall as Swan's emotionless assistant. The film's two musical numbers match the joylessness of the rest of the film, with Daisy collapsing while trying to dub a song about a circus where everything is fake. The picture ends with an apocalyptic conflagration at a beach house that marks Daisy's declaration of freedom.
Inside Daisy Clover does not shape up as a feel-good movie. Everybody we see is mentally deranged or a psychological menace, and we have little faith that Daisy's emancipation will be successful. Christopher Plummer takes a personal delight in crushing his star's spirit. Robert Redford seems like a perfectly straight heel until gossip suggests otherwise -- apparently Robert Redford refused to play the role as bisexual, so a scene was added to make the connection explicit. Other scenes were apparently dropped, as stills exist showing Daisy Clover performing in more movie roles for Swan Studios.
Robert Mulligan directs his actors with assurance and great sensitivity, aided by a script that skips most of the "Star is Born" clichés. The film's twisted viewpoint can be attributed to its author, Gavin Lambert, a film scholar who worked with Nicholas Ray and wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Sons and Lovers in 1960. Inside Daisy Clover marked the beginning of a second career for 72-year-old Ruth Gordon, who was nominated for an Oscar and continued working for twenty more years.
Warners' colorful Panavision transfer of Inside Daisy Clover is splendid. The original trailer positions Daisy as an important event, but audiences didn't flock to it. Warners' only extra is a Roadrunner cartoon, War and Pieces.
Natalie Wood's star never dimmed but her appearances became much less frequent; after a handful of lesser pictures she bowed out of the stellar rat race, returning to star in an occasional TV movie. A tragic accident ended her life in 1981 when she was only 43. Although her career peak lasted only ten short years, Ms. Wood appeared in at least four bona fide classics, and her name in the credits is an almost sure guarantee of entertainment. The Natalie Wood Signature Collection provides an excellent sampling of her career.
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