DVD SPOTLIGHT: Paramount Home Entertainmentby Jonathan Doyle
With Six You Get Eggroll(Paramount Home Entertainment, 5.3.2005)
There aren't many titles worse than With Six You Get Eggroll. The title is briefly explained in the film but, somehow, this explanation makes it even worse. The movie, on the other hand, isn't that bad. It's the story of two single parents -- a widow (Doris Day) and a widower (Brian Keith) -- and their blossoming romance. Eventually, they get married, their kids are brought together under one roof, and chaotic hijinks follow. A year after its successful commercial release, a continuation/variation hit the TV airwaves. It was called The Brady Bunch.
The film is particularly noteworthy for fans of the enigmatic Doris Day. This was Day's final film before her premature retirement. Like several Day films before it, With Six You Get Eggroll was produced by her husband Martin Melcher. Apparently, Melcher was the Colonel to Day's Elvis: he forced her to make films she didn't want to make and kept almost all of the proceeds for himself. Shortly after Eggroll was released, Melcher died, making Day a widow in real life. She soon learned that she was both bankrupt and signed on to star in a sitcom, The Doris Day Show (this was kind of fitting as most of her films were basically big screen sitcoms, anyway). The show lasted about five years and then Doris Day disappeared into over three decades of dedicated animal rights activism. At 81, she's still going strong.
The squeaky clean acting style shaped by Melcher's weird taste in material was virtually obsolete in the 70s -- a decade which was neither squeaky nor clean -- and Day also has a famous distaste for depressing movies. You can see the 70s creeping up on Day in Eggroll with truly ridiculous hippies -- an inept parody of 60s youth culture -- and the totally out-of-left-field appearance of 60s rock band The Grassroots. They're probably on-hand because of Day's son Terry Melcher, a producer and songwriter who worked with many major rock bands of the 60s including The Byrds. In fact, there's a rumour that the Manson family hit the Tate home because it was owned by Melcher who had declined Manson a recording contract.
As for the movie itself -- its context and history is far more interesting -- it's an unusual representation of its era. In the late 60s, a more widespread realism and authenticity was evident in a lot of American movies. This wasn't one of them. Not terribly unlike the sitcom it inspired, Eggroll is an incredibly square film. It even features the trademark Doris Day telephone split screen technique. Still, it's also disappointing from a Doris Day standpoint. Her acting here is broad and abrasive with very little of the good-natured charm she's known and loved for.
The filmmaking is amateurish but with the occasional (almost accidental) spark of imagination. It also includes arguably the least effective transitions I've ever seen. Big, primary colored shapes move across the frame, blocking everything onscreen. This is obviously intended as some kind of flashy new wave device but it doesn't work at all. Still, the film is redeemed by its unpretentiousness and its eclectic cast. Besides Day, we get the young Barbara Hershey, future M*A*S*H cross-dresser Jamie Farr, and even George Carlin. With Six You Get Eggroll is the definition of a DVD curiosity.
Teacher's Pet(Paramount Home Entertainment, 4.19.2005)
Those Doris Day fans looking for something closer to the beloved actress' usual appeal need look no further than Teacher's Pet, an amiable romantic comedy in the spirit of Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch. James Gannon (Clark Gable, in one of his final roles) is a seasoned newspaper journalist who believes that you can only learn reporting from doing it. In spite of his complete disrespect for college journalism classes, Gannon is assigned to help college professor Erica Stone (Doris Day) with her journalism class. But Gannon doesn't reveal his identity to Stone -- she thinks he's a student -- because, against his better judgment, he has a crush on her. As the film proceeds, Gannon tries to forget his feelings about Stone's profession, impress her with his work, and help improve her class all at the same time.
Leisurely and meandering, the film succeeds largely because a) Clark Gable and Doris Day make a good, combative romantic pair and b) Clark Gable is simply one of the most entertaining screen personalities that ever was. It's hard to imagine Gable existing in the real world. He seems tailor made for movies. Gig Young also gives an enjoyable performance as Gable's slightly superior (in almost every way) romantic rival. At two hours, the film is way longer than it should be but it's well-crafted, 50s Paramount comedy at its very best. Don't miss it.
Johnny Reno(Paramount Home Entertainment, 5.17.2005)
As anyone who lives in Texas will tell you, small town Americans loves killing outlaws. The same goes for the citizens of Stone Junction. But outlaws aren't always guilty and, unlike everyone else, U.S. Marshal Johnny Reno is more enthusiastic about justice than he is about lynching. He takes on the system and fights the people of Stone Junction, in order to re-establish law-and-order. As the introductory text explains, "this is a chronicle of but two days in his two-fisted fight to establish truth and justice." Reno's one of the good guys and this film is designed as a tribute to all the good, idealistic U.S. Marshals that existed in the Old West. All four of them.
Johnny Reno is an extremely old fashioned western -- it probably felt dated when it was released in 1966 -- but dedicated western enthusiasts should appreciate its rigid observance of genre conventions. It's from the High Noon, man-of-honor school of western, complete with corrupt, torch-bearing townspeople. It also co-opts the lawmen-under-attack approach of Rio Bravo to good effect. The only really modern contribution to the genre here is that, rather than demonize Indians, Johnny Reno portrays them as protectors of right and good, upholders of the law. There's nothing uniquely impressive about this film -- Lon Chaney Jr. gives a good supporting performance, the score is occasionally quite lively, there's some polished widescreen photography -- but it all goes down easy enough. This is text book, inoffensive genre filmmaking.
Blue(Paramount Home Entertainment, 5.17.2005)
This is a far less traditional western. That is, unless you're talking about the traditions of the spaghetti western. In his book "Spaghetti Westerns," Christopher Frayling ties Blue to 60s youth culture and quotes director Silvio Narizzano's description of the film's topic: "a world allegiance that has come out of violence, the longing for peace, and the strange desire for death." The same could be said for many spaghetti westerns, reflecting the revolutionary, left wing politics that reached unprecedented popularity in the late 60s, following the success of the revolutionary movement in Cuba -- there are countless Che Guevara clones in spaghetti westerns and Tomas Milian plays most of them -- and elsewhere. Whereas previous westerns aimed to celebrate an American mythology, hiding atrocities and any sense of moral outrage, some of the best spaghetti westerns focussed exclusively on these topics.
Blue fits nicely into a broader study of the spaghetti western. It has all the genre's trademarks: a mysteriously quiet, morally ambivalent protagonist, Mexico, misogynistic banditos, excessive violence, a typically unhappy, almost apocalyptic (see: Sergio Corbucci) ending, and lots of eye close-ups. It is (in alphabetical order) bleak, blunt, brutal, cold-blooded, dark, emotionally detached, and vengeful.
Nonetheless, there are beautifully elegiac moments and some real western poetry in this film. It even reaches for (and doesn't quite achieve) the emotional weight of Paramount's greatest western, Shane. The terrific cast includes Karl Malden, Ricardo Montalbalm, and, sporting an inexplicable British accent, Terrence Stamp. With his known appreciation for Montalbalm and the name Azul (Spanish for Blue), I'm guessing Robert Rodriguez has seen this film. All that said, Blue is a little unpolished and clumsy and it's probably best suited to those who already have some spaghetti western experience.
Li'l Abner(Paramount Entertainment, 4.19.2005)
Yee-haw, this movie's weird! Based on a successful broadway show -- which was, itself, based on a comic strip -- Li'l Abner has a brilliantly weird premise. The hillbilly community of Dogpatch has been universally derided as the most useless community in America. As a result, the government decides to do their A-bomb testing there. What is the people of Dogpatch gonna do? Well, initially, they celebrate...because they're really stupid. But the only way they can stop the tests from going forward is to find something essential about their colorful, seemingly inbred community. They make it their mission to find their community's one redeeming quality and Mammy Yokum might just have the answer.
This is a truly mixed bag. On one hand, it's full of imagination and satirical energy. It also looks fantastic -- particularly the sets -- but looks can be deceiving. The insane, absurdist humor (ie. we meet a little girl who is engaged in divorce proceedings) runs out of steam surprisingly fast and the shallowness of the whole enterprise is quickly exposed. Also, the characters' brain dead vernacular -- they add "s" to almost every word and use "is" instead of "are" -- loses its charm after about 8 minutes.
At its worst, Li'l Abner plays like a cliched, small town theatrical production (think Cookie's Fortune). In fact, there's not much evidence that this was ever actually adapted from the stage. It's primarily shot from the front (like a play) and the sets are clearly, well, sets. These varied weaknesses and creative snafus might not offend die hard Broadway types but this is definitely not a vintage screen musical. By the way, watch out for Paramount mainstay Jerry Lewis in a brief cameo.
Back Roads(Paramount Home Entertainment, 5.3.2005)
There will always be a special place in my heart for Martin Ritt (Hud, The Front). No matter how much unwatchable fluff this guy came up with (Nuts immediately comes to mind), his inherent good-naturedness, warmth, and compassion always came through. His forgotten collaboration with John Voight from 1974, Conrack, is especially great. He also made several worthwhile films with Sally Field. Back Roads was their followup to Norma Rae (for which Field won an Oscar) and, like a later Ritt-Field collaboration, Murphy's Romance, it has a breezy, relaxed quality that should please those with a taste for that kind of thing (ie. me), in spite of its shaky reputation.
The story's simple. A former prizefighter (Tommy Lee Jones) and a prostitute (Sally Field) take a road trip to California. From there, bickering, petty crime, and romance ensue. Back Roads recalls the rough, detailed, screwball authenticity of Jonathan Demme's blue collar films, namely Citizens Band and Melvin and Howard. In fact, at its best, it plays like a hybrid of Bringing Up Baby and Melvin and Howard, although not half as good as those classics (of course). It's similar superficially but not quality-wise.
It's also worth noting that one of the masters of down-and-dirty cinematography, the late great John A. Alonzo (Harold & Maude, Chinatown, Scarface), contributes typically beautiful, rural imagery. He worked on a number of Ritt films and his deceptively simple widescreen photography is all die-hard cinephiles really need. Although ultimately aimless, Back Roads is a likable and energetic surprise.
A NOTE ABOUT THE DISCS: There are no extras whatsoever, not even trailers. As usual, Paramount makes up for what they lack in extras with terrific anamorphic widescreen transfers. With Six You Get Eggroll, Johnny Reno, Blue, and Back Roads are all presented in their original widescreen ratio (2.35:1), while Teacher's Pet and Li'l Abner are both presented in their original VistaVision ratio (1.85:1). Teacher's Pet is the only black-and-white film in the bunch and it looks terrific.