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.)

* * *

Anyone interested in perusing some 2060 of my film reviews, dating back to 1994, can do so by simply going to RottenTomatoes.Com


Anonymous said...

Jack Lemmon is and always will be my favorite actor ever. He could do anything.

Anonymous said...

I know that these are out on DVD, but don't forget that Lemmon made some great movies with Blake Edwards as well, my favorite being "The Great Race".

joe baltake said...

"The Great Race" was made by Lemmon for Warners on loan-out from Columbia - as were "Days of Wine and Roses" (also for Edwards and Warners), "Mister Roberts" (for Warners) and the Billy Wilder films (for U.A.). Lemmon had his biggest successes - and Oscar nominations - outside of Columbia. Fascinating, right?

Anonymous said...

I was looking online and found that there really aren't that many Lemmon movies on DVD. No sign of "Tribute", "Mass Appeal", and "Under the Yum Yum Tree" just to name three of my favorites.

Daryl Chin said...

In terms of Sony's handling of the Columbia archive on DVD: the whole situation is appalling. However, it should be pointed out that the George Cukor-Garson Kanin IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU was released on DVD in 2004, along with the Cukor-Kanin-Ruth Gordon THE MARRYING KIND (both starring Judy Holliday). However, as was the case with Sony, both were wildly overpriced for absolutely bare-bones releases (no extras at all, no commentary, nothing). They were priced at something like $24.95! Obviously, they didn't sell that well, and in 2006, those titles were (essentially) remaindered (selling here in NYC at Entertainment Outlet for the grand sum of $4.99). At that point, i confess that i bought up a lot of copies, and guess what a lot of friends got for Christmas that year. And after remaindering those titles, Sony simply let them go out-of-print.

Every so often, online dealers like DeepDiscount will announce a sale of Sony titles, where the prices will fall to $5.99 to $9.99 (and when the list price was originally $24.95 or $19.95, that's a bargain). However, one problem with Sony: a lot of the titles are simply being transferred to DVD from TV prints, meaning: the DVDs are pan-and-scan. This happened with COWBOY, my response was: what a bargain! Then i got the DVD, and realized it was pan-and-scan (and for a movie shot outdoors in 1958, it's criminal to get a cropped image).

And one Columbia title with Lemmon you didn't mention is the delightful PHFFFT (1954), with Lemmon costarring (again) with Judy Holliday, and with Jack Carson and Kim Novak (very charming) giving terrific support. (The script by George Axelrod is one of his best; it's capably directed by Mark Robson, but it's the comedy teamwork between Lemmon, Holliday, Carson and Novak that is really special.)

But Sony is so hideous with its catalogue. How many "special editions" of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS does anyone need? And in the case of Columbia: one of Fred Zinnemann's best movies, THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, just came out but only in a bare-bones edition as part of a Stanley Kramer boxset!

Anonymous said...

I've been trying to locate "The Notorious Landlady" for years now. I couldn't understand why it's never been on video, considering its top-class cast. And you're right, I haven't seen it on TV in a long, long time. Sad.

joe baltake said...


Thanks, as always, for the most informative and astute responses. I had no idea that “It Should Happen to You” (or “The Marry Kind”) ever made it to DVD. All I know is that it is no longer available – at least not through Movies Unlimited, which is the largest DVD warehouse in the country.

Re “Phffft!,” I cannot agree with you more. It’s a gem. If you re-read my post closely, you’ll see that I single it out for still being so very contemporary and also for Axelrod’s great script. Also, I’ve written glowingly about it in a couple of my Turner posts.

Still, that little film can’t be mentioned – or praised – enough. In many ways, it is better than the film whose shadow it has lived in for the past 50-some years, “It Should Happen to You.” Unlike Cukor’s film, Mark Robson's “Phffft!” has hardly aged at all. Again, it’s still modern.


TALKING MOVIEzzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I agree with your idea about boxed sets for Lemmon and Kovacs. I'd add Judy Holiday as another Columbia player who deserves her own set but who has been overlooked to date. She made at least a half dozen films for the Poverty Row studio. Combined, they would make a very nice set indeed.

joe baltake said...

Hey, Moviezzz--

Thanks for the tip on "Fire Down Below." Both it and "It Should Happen to You" may no longer be availalble (apparently) on DVD, but at least they were put out there. I still find it a head-scratcher that both "Operation Mad Ball" and "Landlady" have been ignored by Columbia's home entertainment division for more than 30 years now. It's not as if they were huge, embarrassing flops. But even if they were, they deserve the respect of being made available.

Anonymous said...

I think I'd treasure this blog even if you did nothing but periodically beat the drum for the great "Operation Mad Ball." Boy, am I glad I taped it off AMC back in the day. Beats nothing, and it was a good print.

The Quine/Lemmon combo is so underrated, as is a lot of Quine's other work (I'm kicking myself for missing his "Drive a Crooked Road" on TCM the other night; haven't seen that one, but it's got Mad Ball's Mickey Rooney).

I bought "The Marrying Kind" when it came out on DVD (great movie). I wanted to pick up "It Should Happen to You" as well, but couldn't afford both at that time. I figured I'd pick up "Happen" later, when the price came down. Instead, it went "Phffft!" No pun intended. I do think I might have recorded it to DVD last time Turner showed it though -- I'll have to check!

I think Quine and Holliday worked together only once, on the fine "Full of Life." Unfortunately, when you look it up on imdb, the featured user comment is titled "Quite possibly the worst movie I've ever seen." Someone who doesn't see many movies, I guess.

joe baltake said...

I didn't work at newspapers for most of my life for nothing. As a movie critic, I was adept not only at reviewing tons of films on deadlines but also at wearing down editors. Anyway, this is my way of saying that I won't give up on "Operation Mad Ball" and "The Notorious Landlady" until both are represented on DVD. I'm good at making a pest of myself.

Actually, my friend at Movies Unlimited told me last year that Sony was planning a double-bill of the two, but of course, that never happened. As Daryl Chin says here, we need more updated versions of "A Man for All Seasons" instead.

Re that IMDb comment on "Full of Life," the one thing that annoys me about amateur/civilian movie critics is that they always resort to calling something "the best" or "the worst." There are no gray areas for your average uninformed movie buff - only in his/her head.

Anonymous said...

The fact that the Sony people haven't responded to you is more than bad form. It's a bad sign. If they had an answer for you, it means decisions have been made about these films. A positive answer would mean, yes, they're coming out soon. A negative answer would mean, no, we don't like them and we're passing on them - or, even worse, we have no idea if we still own them.

Anonymous said...

This isn't really the thrust of your post,, what a great poster for the French release of "The Notorious Landlady." No disrespect meant to Messrs. Astaire or Lemon, but if somehow their pohots could be removed, as well as the actors' names, leaving only Kim Novak's likeness, along with the French title - well, that would be one honey of a poster.

joe baltake said...

I agree. That poster is gorgeous, much more sophisticated than the version used for the American showings of the film - and much more representative of the film. At the time of the film's release, Columbis ran display ads in newspapers that were variations on the French ad, but they were used infrequently.

Daryl Chin said...

Sorry, must have spaced when i read your column the first time, didn't notice your comments on PHFFFT... but, yes, FIRE DOWN BELOW was also put out on DVD, when Sony decided to put out a lot of "minor" Rita Hayworth titles. Other titles at the time included MUSIC IN MY HEART (a minor musical costarring Tony Martin from 1940), DOWN TO EARTH (the 1947 sequel to HERE COMES MR. JORDAN), THEY CAME TO CORDURA (the 1959 Robert Rossen movie), and yes, once again, they were overpriced, and now they've been allowed to go out-of-print after being remaindered.

I don't understand this idea of constantly remastering the same titles. IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS... not only that, but the boxsets are ridiculous. The Frank Capra boxset, with the "remastered" IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON... the only "new" title was AMERICAN MADNESS. Yet Capra made some superb films for Columbia during the early '30s, like his wonderful films with Barbara Stanwyck (LADIES OF LEISURE, THE MIRACLE WOMAN, FORBIDDEN and THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN), yet no one has seen fit to do anything with these films.

So it's always frustrating. (Warners, which has been the gold standard for DVD releases of the RKO, MGM and Warners catalogues, used to be just as inane: the first Joan Crawford boxset, for example, had two titles which had already been on DVD, out of five, and the same with the first Bette Davis boxset. But Warners has gotten better: the recent boxsets of Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, and Bette Davis all had new-to-DVD titles, in some cases, not available individually. So that made the boxsets worth buying.)

But THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY... where is it? That's a movie i remember seeing when it was released, and then seeing it on TV. The last time it was on TV... if i'm not mistaken, it was on PBS when they showed a bunch of Columbia titles (including the usual Capra classics, i.e., NIGHT, DEEDS, SMITH) but haven't seen it since, one nice touch i remember was the use of the song "A Foggy Day in Londontown" in a movie co-starring Fred Astaire. (I think, with PHFFFT and BELL BOOK AND CANDLE and THE NOTORIOUS LANDLADY and BOYS' NIGHT OUT and KISS ME STUPID, that Kim Novak's comedy talents have been very much underappreciated.)

joe baltake said...


I also remember when PBS telecast "The Notorious Landlady," but that was at least 15 years ago. (What memories we have!)

Regarding Kim Novak, she has been hugely underrated in general. I keep wishing Lincoln Center will do a tribute to her. She's still alive, still lucid and still looks great. She has a fascinating filmmography - more fascinating than Monroe's, I dare say, and she worked with some truly great filmmakers - Hitchcock, of course, and Preminger, Richard Quine, Mike Figgis, Billy Wilder, Delbert Mann, Robert Aldrich, Joshua Logan,George Sidney,Terence Young, et al. Not to mention her leading men. I'm sure she has some great stories to tell.

Anonymous said...

The last time I saw "The Notorious Landlady" was on Cinemax about 10 years ago as part of a series called "Not Available on Video." Good movie, fun. I'd like to see it again.

Anonymous said...

daryl: I've seen all those Capra/Stanwyck films and would kill for a box set. I also love his 1931 Dirigible. Luckily, I've been able to record several of these from TCM, and I've found others at the invaluable Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee Video in North Hollywood (also, the excellent Platinum Blonde got a DVD release). Early Capra was a revelation to me, much of it just as good or even better than his more mature work.

Anonymous said...

Joe, Daryl:
Besides being a delight, "Phfft" has so many terrific performances it should be designated a movie landmark. And yes, the Capra/Stanwyck films, esp. "Miracle Woman" and "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" are lovely and criminally underknown. A million years ago (OK, 20) I wrote a piece on film preservation and learned, to my horror, that Columbia under Harry Cohn was so frugal that it used original negatives for trailers and didn't take care of negatives. Which is why so many Columbia classics, including "It Happened One Night" and "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" exist now in secnd- and third-generation dupes of the original elements. My hunch is that the negatives for the early Lemmon films are compromised or lost.

Hans Gruber said...

Hey, do a "Cinema Obscura" feature on Mankiewickz´ "Five Fingers".

joe baltake said...

Sounds like a good idea.

Anonymous said...

Great column about Jack Lemmon's missing movies on video/DVD. I own everything of his available on both formats, but as I was born in 1972, there are a few movies of his I have never seen. Luckily, three of those - Notorious Landlady, Operation Madball and You Can't Run Away From It - will be on TCM in July or August.
I did want to add, however, that Phffft! was released on video in 1990 by Goodtimes Home Video. I own a copy of it.

jeff said...

I can remember what a big impact Good Neighbor Sam made on me when it was on TV in the 1960s in LA. The satires of advertising seemed as bold as what was going on in Mad magazine at the time, and at the time there wasn't anything bolder than Mad. Thanks for keeping up the pressure on the gatekeepers; meanwhile, I'm off to the gray market.

marvin said...

I would like to include Glengarry Glen Ross. Jack was great, as usual, in a must see film, for all salespersons. Some of his co-actors were, you might know a few of them, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin