It would take a miracle for Judge Ben Saylor to make a reference to one of Natalie Wood's movies here.
Our reviews of Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Romance (published April 17th, 2013), Gypsy (Blu-ray) (published December 17th, 2012), South Pacific / Gypsy (published May 2nd, 2013), and TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Romance (published March 24th, 2010) are also available.
The girl who grew up with the movies.
Natalie Wood, born in 1938 as Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, was acting on film before she was 10 years old. In 1947, she charmed audiences as the mature-beyond-her-years Susan Walker in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. Successfully traversing the tricky road to adult roles that other child stars failed to, Wood gave a breakout performance in Nicholas Ray's 1955 masterpiece Rebel Without a Cause, notching her first Oscar nomination in the process. Other plum roles would follow, in films such as 1961's Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story.
But off-camera, Wood's life was far from perfect. She was brought up by a domineering stage mother, and was involved in a string of failed romances with stars such as Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Elvis Presley. Her life was cut short in 1981 when she drowned off the California coast while on a getaway with husband Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken, the latter her co-star in what would be her final film, Brainstorm.
Now, nearly 30 years after her untimely death, Warner Home Video is recognizing Wood with a six-film DVD set-including four films new to the format.
Facts of the Case
Bombers B-52—It's Master Sergeant Chuck Brennan's (Karl Malden, A Streetcar Named Desire) job to keep 'em flying at Castle Air Force Base. Brennan is happy in his duties—that is, until playboy pilot Jack Herlihy (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Wait Until Dark) becomes Castle's new squadron C.O. It isn't long before Herlihy sets his sights on Brennan's beautiful daughter, Lois (Natalie Wood).
But Brennan stows his feelings when Castle begins to receive new B-52 bombers, forcing the mechanic to work closely with Herlihy, even as the hotshot pilot and Lois grow close.
Cash McCall—Millionaire Cash McCall (James Garner, The Great Escape) has a habit of buying struggling businesses, reviving them and then selling them at a profit. His latest target is a plastics firm, although his interest in buying the company is more personal than professional—the daughter of the company's owner is Lory Austen (Wood), the woman whose affections he spurned during a summer getaway in Maine. Realizing his folly, McCall attempts to find his way back into Lory's heart—if he doesn't go bankrupt first.
Splendor in the Grass—In 1920s small-town Kansas, Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty, Bugsy) and Deanie Loomis (Wood) seem the perfect couple. But the frustrated Bud yearns to get "serious" with Deanie, who is torn between her own longing for Bud and the abstinence teachings of her overbearing mother (Audrey Christie). Ultimately, Bud heeds the advice of his father Ace (Pat Hingle, Batman) and takes up with the lascivious Juanita (Jan Norris), and Deanie suffers a nervous breakdown. High School Musical this ain't.
Gypsy—Stage mother Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russell, His Girl Friday) is determined to make her daughter June (Ann Jillian) a star, and to this end takes her on the road as a vaudeville act. But when June runs away to get married, Rose pushes her other daughter Louise (Wood) into the spotlight. Lacking the singing and dancing talent of her sister, Louise discovers that she has a knack for striptease and becomes burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee.
Sex and the Single Girl—Psychologist Helen Gurley Brown (Wood) has created a sensation with her book, Sex and the Single Girl, so much so that Bob Weston (Tony Curtis, Spartacus), managing editor of the trashy Stop magazine, wants to do an exposé on her. To get the scoop, Bob begins seeing Dr. Brown professionally, borrowing an alias and life details from his neighbor Frank (Henry Fonda, My Darling Clementine), a hosiery salesman with a bitterly jealous wife (Lauren Bacall, Blood Alley). Before long, Bob and Dr. Brown find themselves developing surprising feelings for each other.
Inside Daisy Clover—Streetsmart teenager Daisy Clover (Wood) is sick of her hardscrabble existence with her batty mother (Ruth Gordon, Harold and Maude). Longing to be a star, Daisy sends a recording of herself singing to film executive Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer, The Sound of Music), who adds her to his stable of stars that also includes the dashing Wade Lewis (Robert Redford, Lions for Lambs). Daisy embarks on a romance with rule-breaker Lewis, but he abandons her soon after they marry. Meanwhile, Swan begins to exert an ever-tighter grip on his star, and Daisy learns that fame and fortune aren't all that they're cracked up to be.
I was an admirer of Natalie Wood's work before I received this box set to review. In her films, Wood exudes a sublime girl-next-door quality. This I attribute not only to her skill as an actress, but also to her "regular" sort of beauty. Rather than a Marilyn Monroe type, Natalie Wood looks like someone you or I could meet in real life, someone you can tell would be a loyal, loving friend-though you've never met. In Wood's best films, her warmth on the screen lends an intimacy to the proceedings, especially when she smiles. It doesn't always happen, but often, when Wood smiles in her films, her eyes half-close. (I don't know if "squint" is the right word here or not.) It's a friendly smile, a bashful smile, and one without guile or conceit. It's a smile that, even though I'm only one viewer of the countless viewers who have seen it and will see it, makes me feel privileged, special in a way.
Now, having seen all the films in this set, my admiration for Natalie Wood has only grown. Watching the films also made me sad, however, not only because of Wood's premature death, but also because, if this set is any indication, her talent was criminally underused.
Wood receives top billing for Bombers B-52, but it's really Karl Malden's picture. With Bombers, Wood is stuck in the daughter role, and while her performance is fine considering the scant material she's given, she really only has one noteworthy moment: a touchingly played reconciliation scene between her character and her onscreen father.
Fortunately, Malden gives a sturdy performance as the conflicted Brennan, strongly conveying the character's torn conscience. Much of the film is focused on Brennan's struggling with the question of retirement; Lois wants him to leave the Air Force and get a cushy private sector job so the family can move to San Francisco, but Brennan is a devoted to the Air Force. Herlihy and Lois' romance complicates matters further, as does the introduction of the B-52.
Even with Malden's solid turn, Bombers B-52 is not a very good film. The friction between Herlihy and Brennan is lazily handled. Brennan has held a grudge against Herlihy ever since, during the Korean War, the latter ordered Brennan to repair his fighter at night, thus exposing Brennan's crew to an enemy bombing that killed a mechanic. Brennan has always believed that Herlihy was in a hurry to make a date that night. (Mild spoiler ahead) As it turns out, Herlihy had strategic information to convey to military authorities in Tokyo. This revelation comes right at the end of the movie, just in time for Brennan to quickly bury the hatchet with Herlihy and send him back into the arms of his daughter.
The Herlihy-Lois romance is never fleshed out and only seems to be in the script as a contrivance, and it doesn't help that Zimbalist fails to make any kind of lasting impression as Herlihy. I can't help but think that the movie would have been much more interesting if the romantic subplot had been dropped, leaving the focus on Brennan and the B-52. We get to see some terrific footage of B-47s and B-52s, and I came away from the film wanting more.
Cash McCall is a James Garner vehicle; at the time of the film's 1959 release, the actor had recently become a television star with Maverick. Indeed, Suzanne Finstad writes in Natasha, her superlative biography of the actress, that Wood only appeared in Cash McCall because if she did so, she would get the role of Deanie in Splendor in the Grass. Still, Wood manages to turn in a good-sport performance, even if her character is merely part of a trite romantic subplot that serves as a poor distraction from the convoluted corporate wheeling and dealing that comprises most of the film. Garner brings his brand of easy charm to McCall, but he's not a particularly intriguing character, and the plot itself (based on a book by Cameron Hawley, who penned Executive Suite) is not very exciting.
As forgettable as the main plot of the movie is, the romance between McCall and Lory is even worse. McCall rejected Lory during their summer encounter in Maine, but he can't come up with much of an explanation as to why he did so. When he tries to woo her back, Lory is obstinate—for about five minutes. Then, out of desperation, writers Lenore Coffee and Marion Hargrove throw a spanner into the works when Nina Foch's (who also appeared in the film Executive Suite) hotel manager character suddenly falls head over heels in love with McCall and tricks Lory into thinking the two are an item out of crazed jealousy.
Overall, I finished Cash McCall having enjoyed it about as much as Wood apparently enjoyed making it.
Wood tops the bill again for Splendor in the Grass, which is only fitting, as this is very much her picture. In it, the actress gives a rich, full-bodied performance, one that brought her a second Oscar nomination (losing to Sophia Loren in Two Women).
With Splendor, Wood gives what feels like a very natural performance that is free of ingénue cutesiness. In watching the film, it's clear that Wood gets the character, and that she and director Elia Kazan are working on the same wavelength. William Inge's fairly deliberately paced screenplay gives Wood room to craft her character, and Kazan lingers on small moments that help develop her further, such as when Deanie returns from her date with Bud at the beginning of the movie, and when she and Bud are walking down a hall of the school. In the latter scene, Deanie is momentarily parted from Bud as the latter talks to some friends, and in this brief interval we begin to see insecurity creep into her face until Bud returns. This could have been a throwaway moment for another actress under another director, not so with Wood and Kazan.
Wood's performance remains sturdy as the plot progresses and Deanie becomes emotionally unhinged. Her breakdown scenes are played well, particularly the bathtub sequence, which is genuinely disturbing.
But the best is yet to come. When Deanie emerges from her treatment at a mental hospital, Wood's performance reflects the character's newfound equilibrium and maturity. Deanie has become an adult, which Wood makes very clear with her soft-spoken, gentle manner. Perhaps the best example of this—with the possible exception of the last shot—comes when Deanie's father (Fred Stewart) tells her where Bud is staying, despite her mother's strenuous efforts to keep his location a secret. Upon learning Bud's whereabouts, Deanie moves slowly to her father and tenderly gives him a kiss.
Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about Warren Beatty. The actor made his film debut with Splendor, and he gives a very good performance—for the most part. Unfortunately, Beatty's portrayal is a bit mannered at times, especially when contrasted with his co-star's work. Still, he very skillfully conveys Bud's confused and frustrated nature, and like Wood, he does a great job with his character's adult scenes.
As an overall film, I'm a little torn about Splendor in the Grass. Yes, the performances are strong, and Inge's examination of gender double standards is inarguably interesting, but there's an air of melodrama (and sometimes more than just an air) about the film that just doesn't sit well with me. I realize that growing up is hard to do, and would be even more with a parent who forces you to either suppress your sexual desire (as Deanie's mother does) or expend your energies on a "slutty" girl you don't intend to marry (as Bud's father does), but being so distraught over not being able to have sex with your boyfriend that you jump in a river? I'm not saying it couldn't happen (or that it hasn't happened, somewhere), but it feels a bit much here.
Still, the performances alone ensure that Splendor in the Grass is a solid film, and hands down the best movie in this set.
"Gypsy" is a very misleading title for this film, as Rosalind Russell's Rose is clearly the star of the show. Wood doesn't really figure into the film in any meaningful way until the third act, when she embarks on her burlesque career. Even if her role had been larger, Russell still would have eclipsed her; the actress' unabashedly over-the-top performance dominates all others. Over a film of nearly 150 minutes, this gets tiresome, but Russell also more or less carries Gypsy on her shoulders.
Beyond Russell, there isn't that much to say about the unremarkably directed Gypsy. The story is interesting enough, and with the elaborate sets and costumes there's certainly a rich atmosphere to the film. Karl Malden offers decent support as Rose's long-suffering boyfriend Herbie. The songs are enjoyable for the most part, and the vaudeville numbers have some fun choreography. Overall, though, Gypsy fails to be the film it could have been.
Sex and the Single Girl is an intermittently entertaining romp that benefits from having a strong cast. Tony Curtis is in fine smarmy form as bad boy editor Bob, although it's a little hard to buy his conversion to a nice guy at the end of the film. Wood is fine if a tad broad at times as Dr. Brown, although her character is not very flatteringly written. Once she (rather easily) falls for Bob, Dr. Brown seems to regress to pre-adolescence, with lots of crying and carrying on. In fact, none of the women in the film come off particularly well, which is ironic, given the fact that the film is derived from a female empowerment tome. Overall, her best scenes are the ones that are just between her and Curtis, who are very funny together.
As for the rest of the cast, Fonda and Bacall make for a convincing fighting-and-reconciling married couple, even if the act wears out its welcome by the end of the film. Mel Ferrer has a small role as a fellow doctor at the institute where Dr. Brown works, and gets to do a goofy dance in her apartment. Count Basie and His Orchestra also turn up in a couple of scenes.
All in all, the biggest problem with Sex and the Single Girl—that is, beyond its overall datedness—is its pacing. No movie as slight as Sex and the Single Girl should have a runtime of 114 minutes. Too much time is devoted to Frank and his wife, and in an overall sense, the script (written by Catch-22 author Joseph Heller and David R. Schwartz) is bloated. The worst element of the film, however, comes in the form of a climactic car chase involving all of the main characters that goes on for nearly 15 minutes. Not at all funny, the sequence should have been cut; it's a shame director Richard Quine (How to Murder Your Wife) left it in. Much of the rest of the film's "humor" also falls flat, like a lame running joke about Bob's resemblance to Jack Lemmon (which begins after a scene in which Bob dons one of Dr. Brown's robes, prompting a Some Like It Hot reference).
All in the all, while the cast is sometimes fun to watch, you'd be better off checking out Peyton Reed's 2003 Down With Love, the plot of which bears an uncanny resemblance to Sex and the Single Girl.
Wood had high hopes for Inside Daisy Clover, Finstad writes in Natasha. The actress lobbied hard for the title role with director Robert Mulligan (To Kill a Mockingbird), who had worked with Wood on 1963's excellent Love with the Proper Stranger (unfortunately absent from this set and DVD in general), a film whose producer, Alan J. Pakula, would also work on Daisy Clover.
Wood's intense devotion to the role is apparent in the effort she puts forth for the movie. Unfortunately, it's in the service of a work that is mediocre at best, and one with which Wood herself would admit to being disappointed. Truth be told, the actress was in her late 20s at the time of filming and is much too old to be playing a character who is 15 at the beginning of the story and 17 at the end. It's rather telling that Wood had acted in all of the other films in this set before starring in this film.
Inside Daisy Clover has occasional glimmers of a knowing showbiz satire, but is mostly just a silly melodrama rife with false, over-the-top moments. Daisy seems to reject the life of a Hollywood star almost immediately after she is discovered, which makes no sense given what we are led to believe of her character up to this point. In fact, for a movie titled Inside Daisy Clover, Daisy herself isn't a very sharply defined character, despite Wood's attempts to bring her to life. Apparently her character had more of the mischievous voiceover narration that is delivered only at the beginning and end of the film, but it was cut from the final print, much to Wood's dismay. Still, she gets a least one great scene: a sequence where her character suffers a nervous breakdown while looping a musical number.
The atmosphere of the film never feels right either. The story is supposed to take place in the 1930s, but except for the fact that the time is mentioned and there are old cars being driven around, you'd never know it.
Fortunately, the film has a strong supporting cast. Christopher Plummer is first-rate as the jerk Swan, oozing menace in every scene without resorting to scenery chewing. His monologue to Daisy just after Lewis abandons her is perfectly delivered, even if the scene goes on a bit too long.
Robert Redford turns in a strong performance as well, in what was one of the actor's first film roles. Redford developed a friendship with Wood on this film, one which would prompt the two to star in the Sydney Pollack dud This Property Is Condemned a year later. The actor is actually very effective in Daisy Clover playing a darker character than is usually associated with him.
Warner Home Video's presentation of Natalie Wood Collection is excellent from a technical standpoint. Beyond minor flaws in the video and sound here and there, these movies, the oldest of which is more than 50 and the most recent more than 40, look and sound terrific. I never owned the original release of Gypsy, and I don't remember what the previous release of Splendor in the Grass looked and sounded like, but in the case of the latter, at least this new edition isn't a flipper disc, nor is it packaged in a snapper case. Extras are light, as they tend to be on these sets; for Bombers B-52, Cash McCall, Sex and the Single Girl and Inside Daisy Clover, all you get is a cartoon and a trailer. What's really disappointing is the near-total lack of extras for Splendor in the Grass and Gypsy; for the former, there's nothing but a cartoon and trailer, while the latter has two outtake musical numbers in addition to a cartoon and trailer.
I don't think I can recommend an outright buy on this set unless A. You are a die-hard Natalie Wood fan who has to own everything she's done, or B. You've already seen all these films and love them, in which case I can't do anything for you. Splendor in the Grass is certainly worth owning, but it's disappointing that Warner Home Video wasn't able to dig up more substantial extras for this film and the others in the set. Still, the technical presentations are strong, and the set is nicely packaged.
My opinions on the individual films in this set should be more than apparent
at this point. The set itself is not guilty for representing Warner Home Video's
continuing efforts to put older films on DVD.
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What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice, Bombers B-52
Perp Profile, Bombers B-52
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Bombers B-52
Scales of Justice, Cash Mccall
Perp Profile, Cash Mccall
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Cash Mccall
Scales of Justice, Splendor In The Grass
Perp Profile, Splendor In The Grass
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Splendor In The Grass
Scales of Justice, Gypsy
Perp Profile, Gypsy
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Gypsy
Scales of Justice, Sex And The Single Girl
Perp Profile, Sex And The Single Girl
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Sex And The Single Girl
Scales of Justice, Inside Daisy Clover
Perp Profile, Inside Daisy Clover
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Inside Daisy Clover
• IMDb: Natalie Wood
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