Thursday, April 24, 2008
cinema obscura: Two Lost Lemmons
Jack Lemmon, unfortunately, spent the first ten years of his film career as a contract player at Columbia Pictures which, of course, is now in the hands of Sony.
Why “unfortunately”? Well, because, if he had apprenticed at almost any other studio – say, Fox, Warner Bros. or Universal – there undoubtedly would have been at least one boxed DVD set, perhaps two, of his work in the marketplace by now.
But Sony, which arguably has the least resourceful home-entertainment division, has done virtually nothing with Lemmon’s Columbia work, so much so that the idea of a boxed set devoted to Jack Lemmon seems a little absurd at this time.
Of the 14 titles that Lemmon made for Columbia under his original contract, only five have made it to DVD – Richard Quine’s “My Sister Eileen” (1955), Delmer Daves’ “Cowboy” (1958), Quine’s “Bell, Book & Candle” (1958) and his “It Happened to Jane” (1959), and, oddly enough, Richard Murphy’s “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (1961).
These five, of course, had previous lives on VHS, along with five others - Jack’s debut film, George Cukor’s “It Should Happen to You” (1954), as well as H.C. Potter’s “Three for the Show” (1955), Robert Parrish’s “Fire Down Below” (1957) and the two titles that Jack made back-to-back for David Swift, “Under the Yum-Yum Tree” (1963) and “Good Neighbor Sam” (1964). These five are not available on DVD.
That leaves four Lemmon/Columbia titles that have remained naggingly elusive in terms of home entertainment, willfully ignored by the studio ever since the video revolution began in the early 1970s.
Missing are Mark Robson’s still contemporary “Phffft!” (1954), based on a witty script by George Axelrod, and “You Can’t Run Away from It” (1956) Dick Powell’s quasi-musical remake of “It Happened One Night.” But at least these two surfaced on Turner Classics in the past new months.
Much more problematic - disturbing, actually - is the exact whereabouts of two of Jack’s best comedies, both made in collaboration with director Richard Quine – “Operation Mad Ball” (1957), a military romp, co-written by Blake Edwards, that remains the ‘50s precursor to “M*A*S*H,” and the sly and sophisticated “The Notorious Landlady” (1962), adapted from a Margery Sharp short story by Edwards and Larry Gelbart.
These two (1) have never been on video in any format, (2) have not been on laser, (3) are not on DVD, (4) are not part of the 500-title package of Columbia titles recently leased to Turner by Sony and, unless I’m wrong, (5) haven’t been in TV syndication for at least a decade.
My befuddled, monosyllabic response to all this is: Why?
I started asking questions about them – directly to people who work/worked for Sony – about three years ago, and have yet to receive a straight answer.
Among the Sony reps I contacted were Marc Rashba, John Reina, Clint Culpepper, Fritz Friedman and former home-division head, Ben Feingold, who reportedly was responsible for all those Three Stooges shorts that have been so lovingly transferred to DVD by the company. None of them responded to my inquiry, much worse than being given the run-around.
The one Sony person who came through with anything resembling information is Grover Crisp, who worked on the recent restoration of Sam Peckinpah’s “Major Dundee” for Sony.
In an email dated August 19, 2005, Crisp wrote:
“The only thing, unfortunately, that I cannot confirm is if and when these two titles will be released on DVD. I will look to see if they are on next year's schedule and get back to you. However, I can assure you that both these films have been recently restored, have new prints available, have been transferred to HD, etc., and are available and not at all lost. They are in great shape.”
Sounds good, right? But that was nearly three years ago and, frankly, what good is the restoration of “Operation Mad Ball” and “The Notorious Landlady” if no one can see either?
These two titles are especially worthy and have great credentials. "Operation Mad Ball," which Edwards wrote in tandem with Jed Harris and Arthur Carter, co-stars Ernie Kovacs (in his first film), Mickey Rooney and Arthur O'Connell. "The Notorious Landlady," which Edwards co-wrote with Gelbart (TV's "M*A*S*H" and Broadway's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"), co-stars Kim Novak, Fred Astaire, Estelle Winwood, Lionel Jeffries, Maxwell Reed and Phileppa Bevans. Edwards and Gelbart came up with an unusually witty, literate script for "Landlady," which received particularly enthusiastic reviews from Bosley Crowther in the New York Times and The New Yorker's Edith Oliver.
BTW, Quine, a house director at Columbia, guided Lemmon through five titles there – “My Sister Eileen,” “Operation Mad Ball,” “Bell, Book and Candle,” “It Happened to Jane” and“The Notorious Landlady.” (Another Lemmon-Quine collaboration, 1965’s “How to Murder Your Wife," was made for UA.)
Lemmon and Quine more than warrant a boxed-set of their work at Columbia. Billy Wilder may have been the director who put Jack Lemmon on the map, but Quine was also an important recurring thread throughout his life and career. (Both Wilder and Quine, incidentally, served as Jack’s best men when he married Felicia Farr in Paris in 1962.)
Also, before there was the Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau/Billy Wilder triumverate, there was the Lemmon/Kovacs/Quine teaming – in “Operation Madball,” “Bell, Book and Candle” and “It Happened to Jane.” You could say that Lemmon/Kovacs/Quine anticipated Lemmon/Matthau/Wilder.
For that matter, Kovacs himself also deserves more DVD exposure. I'm amazed that, considering the recent interest in Kovacs' TV and stand-up work, most of his films have yet to be committed to any form of home entertaiment – and, again, he made quite a few for Columbia. (An aside: While we were working on my book on Lemmon, Jack told me that Harry Foster Malone, the villain that Kovacs plays in “It Happened to Jane,” was based directly on Columbia head, Harry Cohn, who died while the trio was making "Bell, Book and Candle" at Columbia the year before. Kovacs even affected Cohns' look, cosmetically, for his wicked impersonation, donning a bald plate for the film.)
There's no doubt that the home-entertainment divisions of the studios are in desperate need of film advocates - knowledgable people who are willing to fight for deserving titles that are being casually overlooked.
Finally, about a year ago, for some bizarre reason, “The Notorious Landlady” was revived in Paris. That occasion gave me some hope that a DVD would be on the way. No such luck.
But wait. A DVD of the film has recently surfaced and is available through Movies Unlimited. A friend who works there verified this but hastened to add that it’s a non-Sony DVD being distributed by an outside company.
Apparently, “The Notorious Landlady” has lapsed into public-domain purgatory. And my quess is that “Operation Mad Ball” is right there alongside it.
I promptly contacted David Bishop, the current head of Sony Home Entertainment, and received – you guessed it – no response.
Jack Lemmon deserves better from the company that discovered him, put him in movies and sold him as "A Guy You're Gonna Like." But Sony is too busy to worry about the likes of Jack Lemmon. Word is that it is working busily on restoring one of David Lean's lesser titles, "A Passage to India." I'm sure that - what? - at least a half dozen movie freaks out there are clamoring for that one.
Now you know why the word "elitism" has taken on less-than-flattering connotations lately.
A case of studio elitism? Perhaps. Or perhaps it's just plain old apathy. Maybe no one there cares.
1. There are two other films that Lemmon made for Columbia years after his contract there expired – Clive Donner’s film of the Murray Schisgal play, “Luv” (1967), who made it to video but not DVD, and James Bridges’ “The China Syndrome” (1979) which is available on DVD.
2. As you'll see if you check out the responses here, both "It Should Happen to You" and "Fire Down Below" were once available on DVD, but apparently only fleetingly. Neither seems to be around any longer, not even, unbelievably, "It Should Happen to You," a minor classic.
3. And to Dave Kehr for his wonderful site and for being so supportive of other film sites.
Cinema Obscura is a recurring feature of The Passionate Moviegoer, devoted to those films that have been largely forgotten. Suggestions welcome.
(Artwork: Jack Lemmon in his early days at Columbia; a quote ad from a 1962 copy of The New York Times for "The Notorious Landlady," an ad for "Operation Mad Ball," the ad for the French 2007 revival of "The Notorious Landlady" and a shot of Lemmon in his later years.)
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Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com