On a clear day, Judge Brett Cullum can see his neighbor picking lint out of his navel with a matchbook cover.
Dr. Marc Chabot: Have you ever been to England, Miss Gamble?
Paramount presents bare bones "Babs" (Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl, Yentl) and Yves Montand (Let's Make Love) in the 1970 musical box office flop On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. It's an odd little movie that has a rabid cult following, and tons of long-awaited deleted material. So, in this shiny new DVD incarnation, how does this musical reincarnation tale fare?
Facts of the Case
Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand take over for Barbara Harris and John Cullum in the screen adaptation of the modest mid-Sixties stage hit On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. Barbra plays a chain-smoking neurotic New Yorker named Daisy Gamble who wants to quit smoking, and therefore seeks help from a professor at a local medical school. The professor, Dr. Chabot (Yves Montand), soon discovers that Daisy is not only easy to hypnotize, but, more alarmingly, she remembers her past lives when she's under. Daisy turns into "Melinda" in their first session—a woman who was persecuted in England in the 1800s due to her ESP powers. Daisy in her present life has some of these same extra-sensory skills, such as knowing when phones will ring and when people want to see her. She can locate missing items, and knows exactly what you are going to say before it comes out. She also can make flowers grow very quickly by talking to them. (I'm not sure how that ties to ESP, but it provides some nice visuals.) A strange love triangle results, as Dr. Chabot begins to fall for the sophisticated and complex Melinda, while brazen and slightly crazy Daisy falls for the doctor.
The musical's lyrics and book were written by Alan Jay Lerner, who was partnered this time around with musical composer Burton Lane. Lerner had, of course, co-written big musicals like My Fair Lady, Brigadoon and Camelot with Frederick Loewe. The source material for this story was attributed to a real life case study in the '50s, where an amateur hypnotist claimed to have regressed a housewife into memories of a past life in 19th century Ireland. (A film was made out of this incident in 1956, called The Search for Bridey Murphy, for those interested in the source material.) This film version of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever was also the last musical directed by Vincente Minelli (Gigi, Brigadoon). Minelli was the ex-husband of Judy Garland and the father of Liza Minnelli (Cabaret, Arrested Development). Also on board for the production was famed photographer Cecil Beaton, who provided all the costumes and sets for the historical England sequences.
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever certainly has a lot of pedigree to indicate it should be a musical classic along the lines of My Fair Lady. It even borrows key points of its plot from that famous show. Daisy is uncultured and common, but trapped inside of her is a very proper polished English woman, whom the professor falls in love with. She doesn't know why he's so interested in her, and feels taken advantage of when she finds out it is not her but rather who she was that is so attractive to him. The flashbacks to Melinda's old life provide for sumptuous sets with even more lavish costumes. The filter it places on My Fair Lady is to provide that basic story with a '60s Pop Art feel and a science fiction plot. It gives new meaning to "everything and the kitchen sink" when you look at the production. Musical numbers with Barbara? Check. Counterculture represented with hip young actor playing sitar (Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)? Check. European star in lead to make sure it sells well overseas? Mr. Montand accounted for. Fabulous costumes and a funny role for Bob Newhart (The Bob Newhart Show)? Oh yeah. It's an embarrassment of riches on parade under the famed direction of Minnelli working in full Cinemascope with brilliant Technicolor.
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever was expected to be a huge hit when it debuted in theatres in 1970. Unfortunately, musicals—which had been such big business for many studios at that time—were falling out of favor with the movie-going public. This one had been severely altered from its stage production. Minnelli had envisioned a three hour epic, but the studio forced him to trim it to a more manageable two hours. A lot of the English sequences and songs were cut, and audiences were deprived of a duet between Barbra Streisand and Jack Nicholson, which also ended up on the floor. Streisand also demanded that more songs be given to her, and they changed some of the lyrics to steal a number or two from Montand's character. In the stage version, a big question mark hung over whether Daisy really was a reincarnation of Melinda, but here the script was tweaked to make it more of a sure thing that she was indeed the real thing. Lerner just couldn't seem to get the book where he wanted it, and so it lacked a lot of the focus found in his earlier more well-known works. It was going to be hard to wrangle a fine film from these disparate elements.
Despite studio interference and a tough assignment, Minnelli did a great job with the material he had. This certainly wasn't Oklahoma, but he manages his cast and the film very well. Rumor has it that Montand and Streisand were at odds during the filming (a nice way of saying they hated each other with a passion). That's not hard to imagine, given that both performers had huge egos and were notorious perfectionists with two completely different approaches to both singing and acting. Still, the love story does come across well, and Streisand seems to be reserved and natural (at least for her) as well as remarkably adroit at playing two radically different women in the same body. Colors were great, costumes were awesome, and the music (though not always memorable) was appropriately rich and integrated well into what remained of the script. The pacing is spot on, and editing is pretty tight. Many famous character actors appear, and it's a giddy joy to revisit the musical genre Hollywood seems to cycle through every decade or so.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever does have a dated feel, because Minnelli pushed psychedelic effects and stop-motion photography of blooming flowers to make it seem cutting edge for its time. Now it almost feels like "Austin Powers, International Man of Shagadelic Musicals" with its kooky '60s clothes and colors. That's not always a bad thing, but it certainly seems more silly now than when it debuted. The score from the musical has been hacked to bits and rearranged, with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra providing the musical support for Streisand's killer pipes. While they compliment her style pretty well, they seem to drown poor Yves Montand, who has to shout in a French accent over all the horns and strings. Bombastic is the key word here for the musical numbers in almost every case, save for the rather haunting "Love With All The Trimmings" which Streisand owns effortlessly. It does make you wish they had treated Montand with a nice down tempo number like My Fair Lady's "I've Grown Accustomed to her Face," rather than the screeching he has to produce for "Come Back to Me."
The DVD itself seems to be the biggest problem fans are going to have with On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. There are no extras. Recently many of Streisand's more memorable movies have been given great treatment, including commentaries from her and the directors. Unfortunately, Minnelli passed away in 1986, and Streisand's ego doesn't let her discuss her box office failures easily. So no commentary on this disc. And what of the wealth of deleted scenes that could have encompassed an hour of extras? They are nowhere to be found. I would have loved to have seen Nicholson's number, but alas it is rotting in a film vault somewhere to this day.
The best news about this release is the soundtrack. Previously On A Clear Day You Can See Forever was presented on a monaural laser disc and a full screen mono VHS copy. Paramount rights this wrong with a fully realized 5.1 surround mix which allows the music to really soar. They get that part right, except for the fact the 5.1 mix subdues most of the dialogue and then goes nuts when the music starts. You'll probably wake the neighbors with the volume set so you can hear conversations, because when the music kicks in, so do all five speakers at an ear-splitting level. The transfer is nice in widescreen, but it hasn't been cleaned up well. Dirt is all over the print, and it hasn't been restored too well. But have heart, because Minelli's saturated color palette is here in its best incarnation yet.
Paramount delivers another bare bones disc to the market, but I suspect fans of Streisand and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever will be happy to have it in full throttle stereo and widescreen. It's actually quite entertaining in a lot of ways. It's skillfully directed, and Barbra Streisand seems to be used to her best advantage here. She seems to forget that in the '70s she was sexy and funny in a neurotic glorious way. It's a nice glimpse at her before everyone (including herself) started to take her way too seriously. I just wish Paramount had the foresight to treat the release as a chance to offer something significant rather than just a bargain priced lackluster DVD release to complete a few collections. Thank goodness someone had the good sense to at least punch up the soundtrack, which could be enough to justify it as a purchase.
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever is free to go on its kooky psychedelic merry way into film history as an interesting lively experiment and the last musical from a master of the form. Paramount suffers from some cloudy vision, and refuses to ante up any extras for what could have been a celebrated release. They are sentenced to planting flowers everywhere they go while belting out Streisand's greatest hits to make them grow.
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