The latest batch of Criterion films offers Preston Sturges screwball romp The Palm Beach Story, Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, and Martin Rosen’s animated adaptation of Watership Down and it seems there’s little connective tissue between them.
So let’s start with The Palm Beach Story. Preston Sturges was in the middle of his incredible run at Paramount when he made 1942’s The Palm Beach Story (a run that includes Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan’s Travels and The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek), but as the supplements note, it was the beginning of the end. The film didn’t do that well at the box office, and Sturges – one of the first writer/directors – was no longer in favor on the lot. None of that is reflected in the finished product as the film itself is great, but that said, Sturges made better movies so it’s interesting that Criterion has singled the film out for release. Like their previous release of Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living, it seems a way to elevate what is normally held as a minor film into major status. With The Palm Beach Story you can make that argument, though I’m slightly reticent to put it in the class of Hail the Conquering Hero or The Lady Eve, and perhaps the film would seem a little more deserving if the disc had more extensive supplements – but it’s always going to be challenging to add supplemental material for a film when the majority of the people who’ve made it have long since passed away.
Tom (Joel McCrea) and Gerry Geffers (Claudette Colbert) are married in a wild opening sequence, but the film isn’t interested in that as it then cuts to a couple of years later when they’re about to be evicted from their apartment, and are only saved from such a fate when the Weenie King (Robert Dudley) gives Gerry a couple hundred dollars because she’s cute. This leads Gerry to the conclusion that she and Tom need to get divorced because she can’t cook or clean and is an anchor around his neck, and so she plots to marry a rich man who then would be able to help Tom build the airport he can’t find investors for. Tom protests and eventually seduces her, but Gerry is resolute and walks out on him in the morning, heading to Florida. Though penniless, Gerry is able to secure a train ticket through the Ale and Quail club, and– when the club becomes too boisterous – eventually gets close with J.D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee), who is a spendthrift, but is also one of the richest men in America. J.D. falls for Gerry, but Tom shows up to win her back, and at first pretends to be Gerry’s brother. This is good news for J.D.’s sister Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor), who may have been married five times but thinks six might be her lucky number.
The pleasures of a film like this are in how it orchestrates its set pieces, and Sturges was a master at building a dizzy sequence and keeping it spinning. Once Gerry gets on the train with The Ale and Quail members, you can tell that the boys of the club are going to get more and more drunk, which leads to a shooting contest with real bullets that’s delightfully absurd, as is the “meet cute” element of Gerry and J.D.’s relationship – they become acquainted when she steps on his face, twice. The film also has fun in wrapping up as the conclusion ties into the film’s prologue in a way that puts all the pieces together in an oddly perfect way, but one that also highlights the silliness and the paper-thin nature of the narrative.
And it’s the beginning and ending that make the film possibly transcendent. In the supplements it’s noted how the film is playing with the tropes of the screwball comedy, which isn’t surprising as Sturges knew the genre inside and out, having made some great screwballs already. It’s suggested that he was messing with and commenting on the formula as seen in films like His Girl Friday and It Happened One Night, and viewed these tropes with a playful contempt. The film starts (as many screwballs do) with a happy-ish couple on the verge of divorce, and it’s nice to see that Sturges presents Colbert’s character as having a then-modern sense of feminism as she knows that she’s a good looking dame and can marry a rich man if it comes to it, but it also sees her obsession with being practical as the vessel for the narrative. She wants to break up to help them both, which is stupid and everyone knows it, but there’s no movie without it. And the conclusion is so preposterously silly that Bill Hader assumes that Sturges response to how it end the film was to say “fuck it.”
There’s a lot of dizzy pleasures to be had in the film, though perhaps I underrate it because I’m not as fond of the leads. Joel McCrea is a fine actor, but I’d argue his best role is in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, where he’s playing a legend, while he’s been in some good movies (like Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent), I don’t find him one of the great leading men. And while Colbert is fine, when compared to contemporaries like Barbara Stanwyck or Carole Lombard, she’s just not as compelling. It’s possible (and this is a complaint that has been leveled at Stanley Kubrick) that as an auteur Sturges may have wanted slightly weaker actors because it puts more of the focus on the creator than the performers, and perhaps I need actors I can latch on to, as I can with The Lady Eve, to put this in the upper echelon. Regardless, the film is a delight.
The Criterion Collection edition presents the film in its correct aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in its original mono soundtrack. The transfer is a big step up from the previous DVD release, and the film looks better than ever, rarely showing much wear. Alas, supplements are light on this one, with the highlight being a talk with historian James Harvey (17 min.), which puts the film in context of Sturges’ career, while also illuminating is a talk with Bill Hader (10 min.) who adores the writer/direcctor. A radio version of the film (30 min.) featuring cast members Claudette Colbert, Randolph Scott, Rudy Valle and (if my ears aren’t mistaken) Mel Blanc is also included, while there’s also a short film by Preston Sturges titled “Safeguarding Military Information” which features a brief role for Eddie Bracken.
The Sword of Doom is fascinating for a westerner as most of the samurai movies that come over stateside are generally of the Akira Kurosawa or Zatoichi variety. This take is much darker as it follows swordsman Ryunosuke Tsukue (Tatsuya Nakadai), who opens the film by killing an old man who prays for death, but didn’t expect it to come so soon. Ryunosuke is about to enter a sword completion, and his opponent’s wife Ohama (Michiyo Aratama) pleads for him to throw the match, so she makes him a deal: she’ll sleep with him if he’ll lose. But this bargain is betrayed when her husband wants a divorce after he finds out about her bargain, and besides which Ryunosuke doesn’t throw it when the man cheats. Ryunosuke ends up killing the man, which leads many to try to kill Ryunosuke, but he’s too a good a swordsman for them.
Cut to a couple years later and Ryunosuke and Ohama have a child, and he’s working for a group of ronin as a killer. But things are starting wind down for him as he begins to doubt his abilities after seeing Toranosuke Shimada (Toshiro Mifune) do battle, while he’s also haunted by all the people he’s killed in the past. This leads to an epic concluding sword fight that has to be seen to be believed as Ryunosuke takes on an endless procession of assassins.
As the film follows an anti-hero, this feels different than most other famous samurai films, a strangeness that it enhanced by the film’s elliptical storytelling style. Shot in widescreen cinemascope, it’s a gorgeous movie that was a bigger hit in America than it was in Japan, mostly because the swordfights are insane. The film features a number of impressive action sequences, with Nakadai at one point taking on fifteen men in a one take shot that must have been an influence on Oldboy, while the conclusion features a fight sequence that is jaw dropping in its insanity. As a whole, I wasn’t in love with the movie, but it’s got enough to recommend a watch.
The Criterion edition is presented in widescreen (2.20:1) and in LPCM Mono. The presentation is much better than the previous DVD edition, and the black and white photography really pops in the new transfer. The film comes with a new Stephen Prince commentary and trailer, and though that doesn’t sound like much, Prince is a great guide through the movie, and his familiarity with director Kihachi Okamoto makes this a great lesson in Japanese cinema.
Martin Rosen’s Watership Down adaptation is a straight-forward one, but quite brilliant. As a property, the book and film seem to have gone out of favor, but the story is timeless and engaging. Hazel (voiced by John Hurt) is alerted by friend Fiver (Richard Briers) that trouble is coming to their warren, that the hills will run red with blood if they don’t leave immediately. Their leaders doesn’t believe in this prophecy, so Hazel and a number of rabbits decide to venture out, with their best ally being Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox), who is big and powerful.
Their trek seems drawn partly from the bible and partly from Greek myths as they have many trials before they find the best resting spot. They run across a place that seems perfect, but the nearby rabbits are weird and it seems they only want them to stay so more are caught in snares. They find a perfect warren, but there’s trouble as they don’t have any females. So they must venture to Efrafa, a nearby warren that has plenty of females, but is run by an abusive totalitarian leader. Fortunately they make a friend in the seagull Kehaar (Zero Mostel).
Like most great films and stories for children, the film plays regardless of how old you are because the story works on a number of levels. A tale of preservation and leadership, Watership Down is a striking work, and is one of the great animated films. And perhaps what’s most exciting about this release is how it gets a cel animated film into the Criterion Collection. The film is very much a product of its time, and the animation does have some cheap effects like the looping of certain actions, but it also embraces some heightened visual designs (like when it tells of the rabbits’ myths about God) that are stunning. The film got a new high definition transfer for this release, and the results are breathtaking.
The Criterion Collection presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in uncompressed stereo sound. The clarity of the image is such that the imperfections can be glimpsed, while the color is excellent. Supplements include an interview with the film’s director (16 min.), which is fascinating as he had no experience making a film beforehand. Guilermo del Toro (12 min.) is a huge fan of the film, and so he speaks to why he thinks the film is great. There’s also a piece from a previous Warner Brothers release that collects interviews with the animators (13 min.), the entire film is presented with the film’s storyboards shown as a picture in picture, and the set is rounded out by the film’s theatrical trailer.