April 28, 2009

battleground dvd review van johnson PDVD_013

Brick and mortar retail chains keep going bankrupt, so much so that there’s nowhere to buy DVDs near my cozy home or slightly less cozy workplace. That twitchy urge to buy movies on the day of their release will have to be repressed, and Lord only knows how this will effect my already questionably sane psyche. Tower Records buckled in 2006, Circuit City tanked last year, and now the Virgin Megastores are liquidating their inventory before disappearing into the great big box store in the sky. There’s still a few scattered Best Buys, with their limited Hollywood selection, and some Barnes and Nobles, with their inflated prices, but none near me, not that they’d salve my pain anyway. Kim’s Video, that venerable NYC outlet, is attempting to survive as a retail-only store after selling their rental archive to Sicily, but it’s only at one location, far from my prying eyes.

Gone are the days of idly browsing down aisles of glimmering plastic, killing time before an illicit rendez-vous (one hopes) or anticipated screening (more likely). How am I supposed to judge the taste of complete strangers if I can only shop online? It’s a blow to the old ego. I remember racing to the Tower Records near Lincoln Center to grab the newly pressed To Have and Have Not release in 2006, blissful in the thought that this beloved Hawks was mine, instantly! And everyone could see what a cultured and important person I was. Look! Look at what I’m buying! (this glorious aspect of conspicuous consumption also has me gaze a leery eye at the Kindle).

Anyway. It’s a shame, and from now on I’ll have to wait three days for shipping, or three hours for downloads farther down the line. But for now, I’ll have to settle for gonzo savings. Everything must go! The two Virgin Megastores in NYC are closing up shop, the Times Square version is already toast, with the Union Square iteration shuttering at the end of May. Everything is discounted, and near the closing date everything is 50% off. My finest piece of vulturing so far has been picking up the Warner double feature of Battleground (1949, see above image from DVD Beaver) and Battle Cry (1955).

This is another desperation move by the studios, packing multiple titles onto one discounted package. I’ve seen four combined features priced for 12 bucks (these were Steven Seagal movies, but still). These panic super-bargains can’t be good for business, but we consumers have to pounce when we can, right? Let’s celebrate in the ruins – and that’s just what I’m doing with this William Wellman and Raoul Walsh (and Tex Avery!) package.

Before Battleground was released in 1949 the received wisdom was that the public was tired of war movies, and did not want to be reminded of the devastation of that conflict. Producer Dore Schary disagreed, andpushed hard for the project while head of production at RKO in 1947. Schary is quoted as saying that, “it was imperative to do a film about World War II that would say the war was worth fighting despite the terrible losses….” He chose to tell the story of the “Battered Bastards of the Bastogne”, a group of 101st Airborne troops surrounded by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. A hard sell after the horrible human toll of the war, skittish executives strongly objected to the project. Schary soldiered on anyway, hiring ex-grunt Robert Pirosh to write to script, under the title “Prelude to Love”, in order to dupe the higher-ups ready to quash it.

A script was completed in January 1948, right when Howard Hughes snapped up RKO, and he promptly told Schary to drop the project from the schedule. Schary resigned, bought the rights, and nabbed a gig as head of production at MGM. Unwilling to rock the boat with the new head, MGM allowed Schary to see the project through at his new studio. Internally the project was called “Schary’s folly”. As it turns out, it was a box office smash, and it is widely credited with rekindling the war film genre in the 50s.

This is definitely Schary’s film more than director William Wellman’s, who much prefers his earlier WWII picture, The Story of G.I. Joe, which doesn’t have Schary’s patriotic propaganda bucking it up. The film is still a pleasure though, its well-worn archetypes filled out with appealing performances from James Whitmore as a the tobacco spit fountain Kinnie, Van Johnson as the ebullient and conflicted Holly, Ricardo Montalban as the romantic ethnic Roderiguez, and George Murphy as the aging father figure, Pop Stazak. Filmed mostly on a soundstage, aside from the stirring opening and closing shots, the film is notable for its lack of action. Wellman told Schary that he’d “make a film about a very tired group of guys.” It focuses mainly on the moments in between skirmishes, the long wait for fateful orders, the insults traded to buck up spirits, and various bits of slapstick (clattering false teeth, Holly’s ill-fated egg obsession) undertaken to kill time. This episodic, character driven portrait of exhaustion went on to win Oscars for Pirosh’s screenplay and Paul Vogel’s fog-choked cinematography.

I’ve yet to crack open Battle Cry, but there is a wonderful Tex Avery cartoon slapped on as a bonus feature on Battleground. It’s Little Rural Red Riding Hood (1949),  a delightfully cracked tale that turns the classic story into a treatise on deranged male sexuality. The moustachioed, upturned nose city wolf falls for the uncouth lankiness of the backwoods Riding Hood, while the slackjawed yokel country wolf goes all googly eyed for the local city siren. Their ids are uncontrollable and misdirected – each going after the lady from an unattainable social class.

Source: Suid, Lawrence. Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film. University Press of Kentucky: 2002.