Stars and Stripes Forever (Blu-ray Review)9 Jan, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Stars Clifton Webb, Robert Wagner, Debra Paget, Ruth Hussey.
What Blu-ray can do to showcase real-deal Technicolor goes a long way to carry this (high-side-of) boilerplate biopic from 20th Century-Fox, which combines patriotic music with not-exactly-obligatory shots of Debra Paget in tights and other safely suggestive dress for the Korean War 1950s. But what really lingers in my memory from a film I first saw on a 16mm IB Technicolor print later that decade is the degree of fun it is to watch Clifton Webb in splashy conductor’s duds and a John Philip Sousa beard in front of what passes for the United States Marine Band and later Sousa’s traveling own — plus the zeal Webb applies to his conducting labors, which is infectious to watch. And in assisting a performance of no little charm, Webb’s demeanor is also less sternly acidic than in his more trademark performances in, say, Laura, the three Mr. Belvedere comedies and the immensely popular (even Oscar-nominated) Three Coins in the Fountain.
According to nonpareil movie musical historian Miles Kreuger and other experts featured in the bonus section, Lamar Trotti’s script is uncommonly adherent to the facts, even though it concocts a sometimes obtrusive love story built around a pair of then-new contract players being groomed for stardom: Paget (who’s given several decidedly non-Sousa-ish musical numbers) and Robert Wagner (decades before fatal boat outings and reverse mortgages were even a glint in his eye). Not only did these characters not exist; Wagner’s rascal-ish youth is even given credit for having invented the sousaphone — which, of course, J.P. listed on his own resume of achievements.
Aside from this movie and her first major role opposite James Stewart in 1950’s well-remembered Broken Arrow, Fox gave Paget only one other role of this splashy magnitude, sandwiched in between: as the doomed native girl “Kalua” in the ’51 remake of Bird of Paradise. For whatever reason, Paget was off the screen in 1953 altogether, and by ’54 she was more or less buried in the casts of Prince Valiant and Demetrius and the Gladiators. Still, there can’t be many performers who worked with both Fritz Lang and Elvis Presley — and, in fact, the same year Paget’s frame hot-and-bothered the King in his Love Me Tender screen debut, her innocent “Lilia” struggled to retain her chastity amid the Golden Calf orgy in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. That’s a full career right there — and by the way, does anyone else remember that when Presley scandalized the country (and hack TV columnists) by wiggling "Hound Dog" on a June 1956 Milton Berle show, Paget got her own share of moralistic drubs for her own fanny gyrations?
There’s not nearly as much of that here, though when Paget’s song-and-dance hopeful is introduced taking part in a Washington, D.C., burlesque house number, the joint gets busted — entertainment that Webb’s version of Sousa seems to take in stride. (One of the things I like about the picture is its disinclination to treat Sousa as any kind of a prig, which one might logically expect). Whenever Paget isn’t dancing, this 89-minute release keeps its eye on the rah-rah ball, and Stripes was, in fact, the studio’s year-end holiday release of ’52 (along with the counter-programmed My Cousin Rachel). It was an apt choice for Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck to spearhead if he wanted to keep the boys of HUAC off his behind, and it’s pointed out in the bonus section here that the studio’s Jane Froman biopic With a Song in My Heart (which came out earlier that year) also had its share of scenes that kept the troops in mind.
Heart was scripted by Trotti as well, who died prematurely at 52 between the two pictures’ release dates. Another point of commonality is the presence in both of Wagner and character actor Max Showalter, though in Stripes, the latter is merely the narrator. He had an odd career, in that he went from being billed as Max Showalter and then (for a long time) as Casey Adams and then Showalter again — a whiplash that always confused me as a child (and possibly confused him as well). What isn’t confusing is how great this mild crowd-pleaser looks on DVD but especially the Blu-ray. Just thinking of what Fox could do with its library in the advanced format is more mouth-watering than a stars-and-stripes candy cane and better for your teeth. More such releases (and specialized distributor Twilight Time is proving this as well) could help make up for the programming ineptitudes of the Fox Movie Channel.