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Fox 75th Anniversary Studio Classics (DVD Review

3 May, 2010 By: Mike Clark

An Affair to Remember
Leave Her to Heaven
A Letter to Three Wives
Peyton Place

$19.98 four-DVD set
Not rated.

I’ve only recently received the three new four-packs in Fox’s Studio Classics line, and one of them is a real deal (the others aren’t bad, either). Often — and this goes for the Warner/TCM packages, too — one bad apple stinks up the joint. I remember one Warner Western set that featured The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (both all-timers); Jeremiah Johnson (pretty good); and then the crash-and-burn inclusion of 1973’s The Train Robbers — which was always a lot less than any movie cheeky enough to cast John Wayne against Ann-Margret, Ricardo Montalban and Bobby Vinton should ever be.

All four selections in this Fox set are movies for which I’ve had decades of affection – and for differing reasons. In order of preference (which may not be yours), I like:

• A Letter to Three Wives (1949): The only two individuals to win back-to-back Oscars for direction remain John Ford (1940’s The Grapes of Wrath and 1941’s How Green Was My Valley) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who preceded his 1950 win for All About Eve with this rather melancholy comedy about what would then have been called alienation of (marital) affections. This dual honor is somewhat on the strange side because Mankiewicz was probably the least visual of all the superstar filmmakers of his era, but he could really direct actors and, of course, write up a storm.

Respectively married to Jeffrey Lynn, Kirk Douglas and Paul Douglas here are Jeanne Crain, Ann Sothern and Linda Darnell. One of the husbands has flown the coop (hoping to land in a new one) with another woman in town. So which one is it?

At 103 minutes and with three stories to juggle, the movie is very tight. Among the pleasures I most treasure is the chance to see Kirk playing an English teacher just before his overnight stardom three months later in Champion added a dose of testosterone that would make such casting unlikely again. And the movie gains energy because the third episode is probably best of the three, with some terrific banter between Paul Douglas and Linda Darnell (who, like Ava Gardner, was thought by some to have simply traded in on good looks but was in actuality underrated as an actress).

Peyton Place (1957): It’s interesting how critical fortunes have changed for the source novel’s author Grace Metalious, who died in 1964. She was castigated at the time for having written a scandalous and even “dirty”1956 blockbuster bestseller — though I can remember my father expressing shock not at the material but in the wretchedness of her writing. But now, she’s considered a feminist cause célèbre — ahead of her time and a victim of alcoholism at least in part of the hounding she took from the era’s moral police.

As a result, the blockbuster movie made from it — nine Oscar nominations, albeit no wins, plus huge box office — has much less of a rep today than it did at the time, when screenwriter John Michael Hayes (of four outstanding Hitchcock films, Rear Window included) was said to have miraculously “cleaned up” the novel. Basically, the book seemed to take pleasure in trumpeting that sexual times were a-changin’ even in small New England towns — while the movie tried to preserve traditional morality, though with its eyes not totally closed. Certainly there weren’t many glossy Hollywood productions of the day that dealt with incest-rape.

The movie is very much in the spirit of the highly popular spin-off TV series of the 1960s, which employed the same memorable theme by Franz Waxman. Of its five Oscar nominations for acting, only Russ Tamblyn’s seems like a total stretch today. Supporting nominees Diane Varsi and Hope Lange made huge early-career impressions, and (as the Lange’s rapist father), the great Arthur Kennedy got his fourth of five nominations between 1949 and 1958, four in movies directed by Place’s Mark Robson)

And after a string of flops as her MGM contract was expiring, the movie also saved the career of then 36-year-old Lana Turner, whose casting was brave at the time in that one of the most glamorous stars of the day was playing the mother of the teenaged Varsi. Had some garage band with a crystal ball for vernacular saluted Turner with a song called It’s Cougar Time!, it would have only been her due.

An Affair to Remember (1957): This was the first Cary Grant movie I ever saw, unless it was beaten out on my personal calendar by The Pride and the Passion (they opened a day apart) — the latter an ignominious career introduction if there ever was one. Better Deborah Kerr as a co-star than Frank Sinatra (aka Ol’ Blue Ojos) playing a Spaniard.

This was a sudser even a kid could like because it had a lot of comedy in the first half. The and now, it shows how Leo McCarey (one of the handful of directors who owned 1930s Hollywood) could still wring real emotion — even though this is his only movie of real distinction or even merit after 1945. The worst thing about it — other than maybe the godawful children’s chorus stuff that mars the second half — was that got McCarey’s original version pulled out of circulation for decades. That would be the Charles Boyer-Irene Dunne Love Affair, which is usually one of the ammo titles historians pull out to bolster the case that 1939 was Hollywood’s greatest year.

Kerr is a wonderful co-star for Grant, though it’s worth noting that their other teamings — 1953’s Dream Wife and 1960’s The Grass Is Greener — were respectively silly (with scattershot great Grant moments) and downright dull. McCarey could really get actors to respond, though the audio-visual cosmetics are good here, too. The movie got Oscar nominations including one for the title tune — a medium-sized hit for Vic Damone, which charted at the same time as Elvis’s "Jailhouse Rock" and Sam Cooke’s "You Send Me."

Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Thanks to those singing children, I like this unusual combo of gloss and corrosiveness about as much as Remember. An odd movie to categorize, it is sometimes classified as noir … even though it’s in Technicolor and its most memorable scenes are in daylight. How many color noirs were there back in the Golden Age? Not many, though Marilyn Monroe’s Niagara is certainly one and so is that dueling-redheads showcase for Rhonda Fleming and Arlene Dahl playing sisters in Slightly Scarlet.

The noir handle likely comes from Gene Tierney’s portrayal of a first-class sociopath, who is nonetheless so beautiful that she becomes responsible for Cornel Wilde (who resides near a rustic lake) being sent up the river. There are a few Wilde movies I love — like The Big Combo and The Naked Prey for two — but he could occasionally be ridiculous (The Greatest Show on Earth) or a simply a stiff (as here). The women, though, are gorgeous — not just Tierney, but Jeanne Crain, too — and Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning photography is one of the hallmarks of its day. It may be the closest moving images ever came to replicating the dreamy color illustrations of a vintage magazine (say, Collier’s).

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