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Genevieve (Blu-ray Review)

19 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$19.99 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Dinah Sheridan, Kenneth More, John Gregson, Kay Kendall.

More than halfway as essential, albeit more benignly, to the screen’s rich car-culture canon as Rebel Without a Cause and Two-Lane Blacktop, J. Arthur Rank’s international favorite and BAFTA winner also ranks among the glories of British Technicolor that cinematographer Jack Cardiff couldn’t claim. So thanks to an unexpectedly vibrant transfer, VCI’s Blu-ray edition really pops my clutch — though as we learn on a look-back featurette that’s included, corporate Rank didn’t like the picture very much until it took the country by storm.

Written by that Missouri-born presence of British cinema William Rose (who later returned home to pen It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, The Flim-Flam Man and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), this remarkably civilized comedy compared to the crude bludgeonings of today may have a second built-in audience beyond auto enthusiasts. This would be … the sports widow. Except in this case, the sport is an annual London-to-Brighton trek on circa 1904 “wheels” when (even then) the cars in question were nearly half-a-century old. It almost goes without saying that the Brighton pictured here hasn’t much to do with anything in Graham Greene’s underworld toughie Brighton Rock — either in its initial 1947 filming (lead Richard Attenborough’s breakthrough) or in the updated remake that has just been playing in non-multiplexes.

The women here (a wife and a girlfriend played, respectively, by Dinah Sheridan and Kay Kendall) would rather be doing most anything but putt-putting their way to Brighton — especially given that both characters turn out to be fashion plates in a movie that indulges them with costume changes (oh, what a little spilled coffee can do). But men will be boys, and their male companions — respectively husband John Gregson and potential b.f. Kenneth More — are simply ravenous for an annual outing that evolves this time into a wagered race between the two. And with these cars, you can go … oh, maybe 50 feet without some sort of breakdown or mishap — though it’s nice to learn in this release’s bonus section that both plot-central vehicles have been preserved in real life and are on frequent display in Holland museums.

This is the movie that first put Kendall on the map — though, as tragedy had it, she had only a six-year “star” career until leukemia at 33 halted what was an extraordinarily rare mix of glamour and a keenness for both verbal and broader comedy. The only other time I’ve seen Genevieve (in an IB Technicolor 16mm print) was in film school 40 years ago, and I have never forgotten the fairly famous scene where Kendall’s character floors her companions in a nightclub by picking up a band member’s trumpet and blasting away the title tune — which, yes, is the standard Genevieve perennial (a moniker it shares with Gregson’s car). The comedy builds slowly and eventually finds its way to the realm of sheer delight, though Rank didn’t “get” a picture whose script charmed Sheridan so much or likely why director Henry Cornelius mortgaged his home to satisfy the movie’s already meager budget (he died just five years later at 44). The studio wanted to shelve the picture and only released it because some other Rank production had dropped dead at the box office and had to be pulled from theaters for a readily available substitution. Result: in addition to its BAFTA (or British Oscar), Genevieve earned American Oscar nominations for story & screenplay and for Larry Adler’s harmonica score — though politically blacklisted Adler couldn’t be credited on screen or (initially) in academy annals because HUAC hillbillies of the day were having their way.

Cinematographer Christopher Challis, also seen recently in the Cardiff documentary Cameraman, is interviewed in the bonus featurette and says that Genevieve is probably the achievement that earned him the most career praise — though he adds that it was possibly his worst in terms of matching shots. The movie is such a captivating looker that you’ll probably never notice — as is the remarkably classy Sheridan (who, along with Adler, is also interviewed). It might have made her a major star, but according to IMDb.com, the Rank executive she married almost exactly at the time wanted her to curtail her career, which she did. I wonder if he rated a “thanks, honey” during their 1965 divorce.

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