DVD Reviews for 2/9: Mr.Sloper, You've Got A Lovely Daughter

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/09/07 18:04:40

After experiencing both the fourth-quarter Super Bowl meltdown of the Chicago Bears and "Norbit" in one 18-hour period, your faithful critic still hasn't recovered enough to come up with his usually pithy opening wisecracks.

It is a commonly-held truism that great books rarely make for great films–the amount of material that needs to be removed in order to tell the story in under two hours of screen time tends to result in the films being little more than a collection of the best-known moments haphazardly strung together. This is especially true when the strength of the book lies as much with the voice of the author as it does with the story being told. Ever once in a while, though, there will be an exception to the rule and a great book will serve as the inspiration for an equally great film and one of the best is William Wyler’s “The Heiress,” an electrifying 1949 adaptation of Henry James’s acclaimed novella “Washington Square.” It isn’t just a great film version of a highly respected literary work–it is one of the great works of the Golden Age of Hollywood and one that continues to be hailed by buffs like Martin Scorsese (who used it as a source of inspiration for his own period drama. “The Age of Innocence”) as a landmark cinematic work.

Olivia de Havilland stars as Catherine Sloper, a shy and plain woman who is the daughter of a bright, charming and vivacious mother that she never knew as she died giving birth to her. However, she is constantly reminded of how wonderful her mother was and how she fails to compare by her hard-hearted father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson). One day, Catherine meets the poor-but-handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) and is stunned to find that he is preparing to court her. For the first time in her life, Catherine is in love and is crushed when her father cruelly tells her that Morris is presumably nothing more than a gold digger after the money that she inherited from her mother and will eventually inherit from him–after all, why else would he profess to be in love with someone as drab and dowdy as her? Of course, Catherine is devastated by her father’s words and finds herself even more determined to go off with Morris, even if it means being disinherited by Dad. When Morris learns about this, he suddenly disappears–either because Catherine’s father was right or because he truly loved her and didn’t want her to sacrifice her fortune for him–and Catherine is crushed. Before long, however, she recovers and when Morris returns after a time, it leads to one of the most powerful final scenes ever filmed.

In bringing “Washington Square” to the screen, Wyler made a smart decision in focusing less on the book and more on the stage adaptation written by Augustus & Ruth Goetz. Granted, it does diverge from the original book in many ways (especially in the ending) and while some purists may have howled, it maintains a fidelity to the theme and emotions of James’s original work that is, in my opinion, far more important than getting every line from the book down exactly as they were on the page. For proof of this, check out Agnesika Holland’s 1997 adaptation “Washington Square”–it hews far closer to the original book but despite good performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Albert Finney in the leads, it just doesn’t come alive in the same way that Wyler’s film does. Of course, much of the success of the film is due to the perfect casting of the lead characters. Olivia de Havilland (who won an Oscar for the role) turned in the best work of her entire career as Catherine–watching her effortlessly glide from dowdy to cheerful to despondent to cruel is like watching a master class in the art of screen acting. Ralph Richardson is equally strong as Catherine’s father, a man who is determined to tell the truth at all times, no matter how cruelly it may seem–to him, he is simply helping others instead of hurting them and that is what gives his comments their extra sting. And while he is usually overlooked in discussions of the film in order to focus on de Havilland, Montgomery Clift is also surprisingly strong and effective as Morris in the way that he captures the quicksilver slipperiness of the character–even in its final moments, we still aren’t entirely sure if he is just a common fortune hunter or a man in love who act of genuine sacrifice has been horribly misinterpreted by people who have grown too embittered to recognize genuine love when it is staring them right in the face.

“The Heiress” has been atop DVD most-wanted lists for years now and fans of the film are liable to be overjoyed that they can finally retire their muddy VHS tapes. Beyond that, however, it is hard to come away from this disc feeling anything other than a little disappointed. Although it has been released under the “Universal Cinema Classics” banner, there are no features to be had on the disc other than a brief introduction from TCM’s Robert Osborne and a copy of the theatrical trailer. This isn’t bad but when you compare it to something like Universal lavish 2-disc treatment for something like “Double Indemnity,” you may wish that the studio could have at least provided a commentary from someone–a Wyler expert, perhaps, or even Scorsese–to discuss the film and the impact that it still has on viewers nearly 60 years after its release. Although the film proper looks nice, this is a bare-bones treatment of a film that deserves a full-blown special edition and I can only hope that Universal has not bolted the door on such a possibility somewhere down the road.

Written by Augustus & Ruth Goetz. Directed by William Wyler. Starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson. 1949. 115 minutes. Unrated. A Universal Home Video release. $14.98.


2007 TOSTITOS FIESTA BOWL (Big Daddy.$24.95): Best Bowl Game Ever!

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (Universal Home Video. $14.98): The winner of 1930's Best Picture Oscar, this adaptation of the Erich Remarque novel follows a young German who enlists in the army in a fit of patriotic fervor only to discover that jingoistic stories of the glories of war are fairly ineffectual in dealing with whizzing bullets. Although some of the performances are kind of hammy, the film is still a powerful anti-war document and the final scene is one of the most famous screen images of all time.

ANYTHING BUT LOVE–VOLUME ONE (Fox Home Entertainment. $39.98): The first two seasons of this critically acclaimed late 80's sitcom–in which Jamie Lee Curtis and Richard Lewis pitch mutual woo while working at a magazine–make their home-video debut in a package that also includes a documentary charting the history of the show up to the moment the players learned of its cancellation.

ARABIAN NIGHTS (Universal Home Entertainment. $14.98): Cult icon Maria Montez, the so-called “Queen of Technicolor,” finally arrives on DVD in this decidedly campy and compulsively watchable tale of adventure and intrigue. Featuring Shemp Howard as Sinbad and if that doesn’t drive you to purchase this as soon as possible, nothing will

CHARMED–THE COMPLETE SEVENTH SEASON (Paramount Home Video. $49.99): Go ahead and stare at the picture–I don’t mind.

CINDERELLA III (Buena Vista Home Entertainment. $29.99): I think I speak for most of us when I take this moment to say, “There was a ‘Cinderella II?”

THE CLOCK (Warner Home Video. $19.98): In this classic film from Vincente Minnelli, Robert Walker is a soldier spending a 48-hour pass in unfamiliar New York City, Judy Garland is the local girl who offers to show him around and what develops between them makes for one of the all-time great screen romances. Get this for your significant other for Valentine’s Day and if they don’t respond to it–especially when the two lose each other in the crush at Grand Central Station and it seems they may never see each other again–dump them as quickly as possible.

DISASTER: THE MOVIE (Universal Home Entertainment. $24.98): So what do you do when you spend all your time make a spoof of big, dumb action movies with an all-puppet cast only to find yourself beaten to the punch by “Team America”? You sit on the shelf for several years until someone finally decides to release you direct-to-video in a package designed to make Motley Crue (who make a cameo appearance in puppet form) look like the stars in order to seem more attractive to unreconstructed metalheads.

EDDIE MURPHY-DELIRIOUS (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.98): Despite a stretch of wildly homophobic material that was questionable even back when this was filmed in 1983, this Eddie Murphy concert film remains one of the high-points of his career and a sad reminder of the quicksilver wit that was lost in the rush to cash the paychecks for the likes of “Metro” and “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.” Hell, the disc’s FBI warning alone contains more genuine laughs than all of “Norbit.”

FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (Paramount Home Video. $29.99): Although it does play a little better when seen in tandem with its companion piece, the current Oscar nominee “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Clint Eastwood’s film about the historical photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima and how appearing in that picture affected the lives of three of the Marines involved (Ryan Philippe, Jesse Bradford and Adam Beach) was a well-intentioned drama about war and how a single image (no matter how artificial) can sway public opinion that was simply too dramatically inert to make the kind of impact that many hoped it would.

FLICKA (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.98): Another film version of the venerable girls-tames-wild-horse story, this time with Alison Lohman as the girl astride the luckiest pony around and Maria Bello and Tim McGraw as her parents.

THE GRUDGE 2 (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.98): Audiences 0. (I realize that I have probably used that joke again but when Sony offers more than another rehash of pseudo-creepy Asian kids with short pants and stringy hair making weird noises at idiotic Americans, I’ll invest in some new material.)

HERE COMES MR JORDAN (Sony Home Entertainment. $19.95) The classic 1941 comedy-fantasy about a boxer (Robert Montgomery) who is claimed by Heaven before his time and sent back to Earth in the body of a wealthy man just murdered by his wife and her lover, makes its long-awaited DVD debut. The inspiration for two remakes–the impressive Warren Beatty film “Heaven Can Wait” and the hideous Chris Rock misfire “Down to Earth”–this version is by far the best thanks to a witty, Oscar-winning script and a great supporting turn from Claude Rains as Montgomery’s celestial advisor, Mr. Jordan.

HOLLYWOODLAND (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although this film chronicling the life and mysterious death of “Superman” star George Reeves didn’t exactly set the box-office on fire during its brief run last fall, Ben Affleck’s smart and affecting turn as Reeves did go a long way towards reminding viewers of his genuine strengths as an actor that have been largely forgotten amidst years of tabloid headlines and films like “Surviving Christmas.”

I AM AN S&M WRITER (Kino Video. $29.95): Beats me.

INCUBUS (Sony Home Entertainment. $24.95): In this direct-to-video slasher film, Tara Reid plays a brilliant med student and I think that is all you need to know.

RUNNING WITH SCISSORS (Sony Home Entertainment. $26.98): One of last year’s more notable critical and financial failures, this adaptation of Augusten Burroughs’s memoirs of life with his crazy mom (Annette Bening), her crazy shrink (Brian Cox) and the shrink’s crazy family (including Evan Rachel Wood, Jill Clayburgh and Gwyneth Paltrow) was a wildly tone-deaf work that could have been more poorly conceived and executed if writer/director Ryan Murphy had deliberated tried to do such a thing.

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (Warner Home Video. $27.98): Working on his first feature film without a Charlie Kaufman screenplay, filmmaker Michel Gondry gives us a film (in which crazy dreamer Gael Garcia Bernal’s flights of fancy interfere with his potential relationship with next-door cutie Charlotte Gainsbourg) that is both visually impressive and dramatically inert.

A SUMMER PLACE (Warner Home Video. $19.98):While on vacation with their families for the summer, Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee meet at a Maine resort and fall in love, not realizing that her father (Richard Egan) and his mother (Dorothy McGuire) are former lovers who have just rekindled their own affair in the film that helped inspire the “Grease” tune “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” As 50's-era soap operas go, this effort from Delmer Daves is either one of the best or one of the worst, depending on your point-of-view.

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