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Tony Curtis Collection

by Glenn Erickson Aug 01, 2020

Good Old Tony Curtis!  We could always depend on Tony for a sly, ingratiating smile, charm that ranged from candid-sweet to barracuda insincerity, and a desire to please that never quit. Some of his best work came while schmoozing and nice-nice clawing his way to the top, where he epitomized the glamorous movie star with universal appeal. Kino gathers three of Curtis’s better mid-career starring vehicles, directed by three top talents — Blake Edwards, Robert Mulligan and Norman Jewison.


Tony Curtis Collection
The Perfect Furlough, The Great Impostor, 40 Pounds of Trouble
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
312 minutes
Street Date August 4, 2020
available through Kino Lorber
49.95
Starring:
Tony Curtis

 

Tony Curtis appears to have become a Golden Boy at late-’40s Universal-International by playing the role of ambitious actor to the hilt. Everybody caught him dancing a mean rumba with Yvonne de Carlo in Criss Cross; it’s fun to seem him perform a ‘look, it’s me’ walk-on for Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Gambles. You can bet that making friends at work was Tony’s main order of business… by 1950 his name was on the posters and the year after that he was starring in a series of costume fantasies and programmer dramas, mostly with fellow contract player Piper Laurie. His ease with brash, nervy charmers made him a useful property, especially because U-I’s other favored sons Rock Hudson and Jeff Chandler were different enough not to offer direct competition.

Curtis’s socializing and business smarts did the trick. He was sought out by established stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and directors like Carol Reed. It didn’t hurt that most every movie Tony was in from 1956 forward was a hit. He certainly proved he could act, even if he always knew that the too-cute kid from New York got by primarily on dreamboat looks. His greatest comedy role is in Some Like It Hot and his best serious work might be in Sweet Smell of Success. A woman in that film calls him not handsome but ‘pretty.’ Burt Lancaster’s character calls him ‘a cookie full of arsenic.’ Curtis’s response to most insults is a glittering smile.

I first saw Tony Curtis at age eight in a reissue (1960?) of The Black Shield of Falworth. All I knew was that the dashing hero made me want to fight with a shield and sword. I saw Curtis in person in 1973 at the premiere of the musical remake of Lost Horizon — he cruised by with a million-dollar smile on his face. According to the IMDB we were the same height, but I was convinced he was shorter. He had delicate features and wore a lot of makeup. But I’ve never seen a bad-looking picture of the guy.

The Tony Curtis Collection features three of the actor’s starring vehicles, two comedies in color and one semi-serious show in B&W. Curtis would work with Robert Mulligan and Norman Jewison only once each, but his films with Blake Edwards boosted both of their careers.


 

The Perfect Furlough
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 93 min.
Starring: Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Keenan Wynn, Linda Cristal, Elaine Stritch, Marcel Dalio, Les Tremayne, Jay Novello, King Donovan, Alvy Moore, Troy Donahue, Norman Grabowski, ‘Snub’ Pollard, Lisa Simone, Carleton Young.
Cinematography: Philip Lathrop
Original Music: Frank Skinnner
Written by Stanley Shapiro
Produced by Robert Arthur
Directed by
Blake Edwards

Service Comedies — movies about fun and games in the peacetime armed forces — took a big upswing after Columbia’s Operation Mad Ball (1957). Universal’s The Perfect Furlough can boast an efficient script by Stanley Shapiro, who would take the lion’s share of credit for the next year’s smash Pillow Talk. Tony Curtis and director Blake Edwards built on their previous film Mister Cory (1957) with this broad but well-timed comedy about a soldier’s unlikely spree in Paris with two beautiful women. Blake gets to try out comic material that he’d return to in the Pink Panther movies, while Curtis leads with his sparkling personality. They also seem to have taken over the casting department — unlike the star’s U-I program pictures, Furlough mostly ignores the studio contract roster in favor of personalities like the seldom-seen Elaine Stritch, a pal from Curtis’s time in acting school. Janet Leigh once again receives high billing opposite her husband of several years; their daughter Jamie Lee was born later in the year.

Army brass determines that a crew of servicemen on a special Arctic mission can’t be relieved, even after months of duty away from female companionship. Specialist Lt. Vicki Loren (Janet Leigh) proposes that a lottery be used to choose just one soldier, who will be given a highly publicized holiday in Paris with a volunteer date — sexy movie star Sandra Roca (Linda Cristal). Slick trickster Cpl. Paul Hodges (Tony Curtis) becomes the big winner, mainly by gambling for the lottery tickets of his comrades in crap games, and by convincing the eventual winner (Alvy Moore) that he’s not up to the job of representing the military on a Parisian prowl with a movie star.

 

With the nervous aide Maj. Collins (King Donovan) in tow, commander Col. Leland (Les Tremayne) and Lt. Loren receive the ‘winner’ Hodges and the star Roca at the beginning of a highly publicized ‘super date’ — only to discover that the two are so strongly attracted to each other that real passion might break out, boosting morale but ruining the Army’s image. Even when chaperoned by M.P.’s, Hodges manages to break free with the eager Roca for an entire day in the country. But there are surprises for everyone. Not even Roca’s agent Harvey Franklin (Keenan Wynn) knows her secret, that reveals that her torrid attraction for Hodges is only a charade. And Lt. Loren doesn’t realize that she’s falling in love with him, even as she wrings her hands at Hodges’ promiscuous, highly creative antics.

The show is silly fun, and at least it doesn’t rely on stupid mistaken identity games. Actually the first reel or so of setup is pretty awful, with clowning army officers cooking up their morale-building scheme while the desperate soldiers at the North Pole worship a photo of Sandra Roca — which they also use for a dart board.

The fun begins in Paris, propelled mostly by Tony Curtis’s hormone-driven quest to conquer Mount Roca in the name of horny servicemen everywhere. Janet Leigh expresses disgust while Roca’s assistant Elaine Stritch handles the mild ‘Eve Arden’- type smart dialogue. Paris is mostly doubled on the Universal City back lot, to mostly good effect. A familiar SoCal ranch location doubles for the French countryside, where Hodges manages to get both Roca and Lt. Loren to himself.

 

The windup is straight farce — who has fathered Sandra Roca’s expected Blessed Event?  How will Hodges prove that he really loves Loren?  Tony Curtis makes Hodges’ tricks and schemes seem like fun through sheer energy. It’s of course all a matter of comedy timing. In one scene Leigh is taking a bath in a rural chateau because she’s fallen into a wine vat (don’t ask). Hodges comes in to bring her something with a curtain over his head to prove he’s not peeking — and then straightens a picture on the wall on his way out.

One beautifully timed comic scene would be a hit in any foreign language class. Hodges and Roca are sequestered under guard in different hotel rooms, as if they were two dogs in heat. To sneak out to see her Hodges masquerades as a bellboy, even though he speaks no French. Ordered to change a light bulb, the uncomprehending Hodges never stops smiling as he opens window, adjusts a fan, etc., while the hotel manager yells at him in French. It may sound thick but it’s the funniest scene in the movie.

Blake Edwards’ direction is not bad at all, once he gets beyond the lame arctic circle scenes. Whereas some of the more tired service comedy gags fall flat, almost everything between Curtis and his female co-stars is bright and funny. The show does what it’s supposed to do, which is leave us smiling.

The Universal front office does jam Troy Donahue into a couple of scenes, giving him a line of dialogue or two. Jay Novello is excellent as an old Frenchman, and if you don’t blink you’ll see Lisa Simone as a random French girl that Hodges tries to pick up at a street café.


 

The Great Impostor
1960 / B&W / 2:00 widescreen / 113 min.
Starring: Tony Curtis, Karl Malden, Edmond O’Brien, Arthur O’Connell, Gary Merrill, Joan Blackman, Raymond Massey, Robert Middleton, Jeanette Nolan, Sue Ane Langdon, Larry Gates, Mike Kellin, Frank Gorshin, Cindi Wood, Dick Sargent, Robert Crawford Jr., Herbert Rudley, Jerry Paris, Harry Carey Jr., Gage Clark, Richard Gaines, Frank Maxwell.
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Original Music: Henry Mancini
Written by Liam O’Brien from the novel by Robert Crichton
Produced by Robert Arthur
Directed by
Robert Mulligan

The emphasis in this second collection entry is shared between Tony Curtis’s acting gifts and a meaningful, unusual story. Former Golden Age TV director Robert Mulligan was a master of intensely personal, intimate dramas, as seen in his fine Anthony Perkins/Karl Malden feature Fear Strikes Out. Curtis also knew the value of having ‘important’ pictures on his resume, after all the attention attracted by Stanley Kramer’s liberal race epic The Defiant Ones. Mulligan and Curtis’s tale of big-city cruelty The Rat Race is good but depressing, but the same year’s The Great Impostor is quirky a standalone item that tries something new for an American studio product. Sold as a comedy, it’s mostly a serious take on an absurd, difficult-to-believe real life character. Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. was a con man who assumed multiple identities to take jobs for which he was unqualified. Demara’s true story is strange enough, and Liam O’Brien’s screenplay doesn’t soften and idealize it beyond recognition. What we get is a Kerouac-lite saga of a criminal nonconformist. Ferdy Demara’s story is a challenge to the normality of following rules and conforming to social expectations — the reality of life that many people see as an unavoidable rut.

Tony Curtis plays Demara as a dreamer with nothing but good intentions and a broad streak of good-natured dishonesty. His story is told in flashback, as he’s arrested for the umpteenth time as an impostor. We see his childhood of petty irresponsibility. He wants ‘to be somebody’ without investing in a formal education. Unable to become an Army officer for the lack of a high school diploma, he steals the identity of a qualified man an is granted a commission in the Marines. Informed that his forged documents will be checked, he fakes his death and uses another swindle to join/hide out in a strict order of monks led by Abbott Donner (Raymond Massey). Demara’s life is one long victimless swindle, that he occasionally reports to his priest, Father Devlin (Karl Malden). He fakes occupations in real life the same way an actor lives vicariously through roles in plays.

Unable to follow the ascetic lifestyle at the monastery, Demara is soon picked up by the police for his earlier crimes. A model penitentiary prisoner, upon release he uses another scam to pose as a special psychiatric expert and become co-warden at a Texas prison. There he tries out experimental ideas with the dangerous criminals in solitary confinement, impressing the warden (Arthur O’Connell) and romancing the warden’s daughter (Sue Ane Langdon). Again, when his deception is uncovered, Demara runs away. This time he copies the records of a qualified doctor to join the Canadian Navy, studying medical books at night, on the job. He falls truly in love with a Lt. Lacey (Joan Blackman) and ships out on a destroyer heading for service in Korea. He successfully extracts the tooth of his captain (Edmond O’Brien) but is suddenly challenged by something he didn’t expect — a boatload of Korean wounded that need his attention.

 

The Great Impostor walks a tightrope of delicate comedy-drama: the crazy story could easily become ridiculous. The real life Demara succeeded in his outrageous impersonations mainly because nobody would believe anybody would attempt such a thing. It all seems lighthearted and fanciful until we realize that Ferdinand could not possibly succeed in the long run:again and again he discovers that it’s just too easy to be found out. In the Texas prison, an earlier convict pal (Frank Gorshin) arrives, and Demara knows it’s time to split. The movie must walk a thin line with Demara’s confessor, Father Devlin. The priest cautions Ferdinand to quit, and then advises him to break his bad lifestyle by falling in love. Once upon a time it was believed that marriage and children tamed male irresponsibility.

The screenplay insists that Demara’s impersonations only hurt himself. People like him for himself, not just for his faked qualifications and achievements. His lies leave a string of disappointed, cheated people in his wake. The ending pretends that they all forgive him, especially the intelligent Lt. Lacey, who remains committed despite Demara’s crimes. The movie’s unstated moral is that Ferdy Demara is exceptional, that men are measured by more things than society’s rules and laws. I don’t think it’s cynical to respond with the argument that most criminal personalities are quick to exploit such blind faith. (Look at our political leaders…)

Some of Demara’s exploits are really amusing. His time in the Abbey can be compared to the comic trial of the hapless Stanley Moon. We nod in approval when we see Brother Demara stealing grapes and food when faced on an ascetic diet. It’s also fun to see his cheerful con-jobs accepted with enthusiasm — the Marines are delighted that a man with advanced degrees wants to serve. It’s too bad that the F.B.I. reviews officer applications. When Demara’s experimental techniques in the solitary prison cellblock seem to work The Great Impostor begins to say something: maybe men could achieve greater things if the official qualification barriers and stuffy regulations just weren’t there. We’ve all met people barred from top-slot jobs for one reason or another, who could do better than the phonies working above them that take the honors and rewards.

But anybody with a brain ought to know that Demara’s system of dream employment is a terrible idea. That thought is confirmed — and skirted — when he fakes his way into becoming a ship’s doctor. Demara seems to think that any really sick patients will quickly be Medevac’d away from his incompetence, that he’ll only have to lance boils and dispense aspirin. The real Demara apparently performed actual surgery with just the knowledge gained from scanning general books on the subject. An amazing feat, true, but irresponsible beyond measure.

 

I have to say that there’s a stealth racist cheat in this part of the story: the fake doctor performs his make-it-up-as-I-go-along surgeries on Korean wounded. If white American soldiers were involved, I think the hammer of disapproval would come down hard on the cute, clever miracle man Demara.

Other thoughts: the Demaras of this world succeed at filling positions of responsibility when they find positions where they can just supervise other experts, and fake it all the way. The real frauds become salesmen, faith healers and run big-scale cons. There’s also politics to consider, except that one’s background crimes and vices become public property. Of course, the dreamer Ferdinand Demara really missed the boat by not using his good looks and magnetic personality to do what he was born to do, become an actor.

The film’s final sign-off gag impersonation is brilliant, the way it leaves The Great Impostor on a high note. As for the fate of poor Lt. Lacey, is Demara doing her a favor?  In a way The Great Impostor is a multiple-role comedy-drama. I can’t help but think that the film connects with the multiple role style then favored by Peter Sellers and Alec Guinness. Were Peter Sellers and Neil Simon thinking of The Great Impostor when they concocted the absurd finale of After the Fox? Sellers’ master thief steals the identity of a doctor to escape from prison… but on the way out he pulls at his fake beard and discovers that it is real: “My God! The Wrong Man Has Escaped!”

Curtis’s performance is no mean feat. He pitches his great impostor below ‘funny-funny’ but includes enough levity to show us that Demara (sigh) loves what he’s doing, even as he disappoints everyone who cares for him. We all know people like that, who aren’t criminals but can’t help but demolish their relationships.

The all-star cast is led by Edmond O’Brien, whose toothache-tormented Captain is a marvelous construction. They pull off a W.C. Fields ‘The Dentist’ scene for real, with a total incompetent in charge. [More nervous ‘fun’ — what if Demara had killed the Captain with too much novocaine, ha ha ha?] This isn’t primarily a romantic movie, a first for a Tony Curtis comedy-drama. Yet Sue Ane Langdon and Joan Blackman sketch warm sweethearts with just a couple of scenes each. I don’t understand why Blackman didn’t become a bigger star — her killer close-ups in the color Elvis films Blue Hawaii and Kid Galahad make impressions as strong as that of any to-die-for movie heartthrob.


 

40 Pounds of Trouble
1962 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 106 min.
Starring: Tony Curtis, Suzanne Pleshette, Claire Wilcox, Phil Silvers, Larry Storch, Kevin McCarthy, Tom Reese, Howard Morris, Edward Andrews, Stubby Kaye, Warren Stevens, Mary Murphy, Karen Steele, Ford Rainey, Gregg Palmer, Sharon Farrell, Jack La Rue, Diane Ladd, Allyn Ann McLerie, Richard Mulligan.
Cinematography: Joe MacDonald
Original Music: Mort Lindsey
Written by Marion Hargrove from the story Little Miss Marker by Damon Runyon
Produced by Stan Marguiles
Directed by
Norman Jewison

It’s been firmly established that Tony Curtis idolized Cary Grant. He realized his dream of playing opposite his role model in Operation Petticoat. He also gave himself a Cary Grant- like role for the first (only?) movie made through his own ‘Curtis Enterprises’ company. Beautifully produced and cast with a great many welcome faces, 40 Pounds of Trouble is yet another version of Little Miss Marker, the Damon Runyon comedy about a gambler saddled with a little girl when her father commits suicide. Previous film adaptations starred Adolph Menjou and Shirley Temple (1934), and Bob Hope and Mary Jane Saunders (1949). Walter Matthau and Sara Stimson made a version in 1980. Screenwriter Marion Hargrove transposes the story to a Lake Tahoe casino but retains the gambler’s wide array of gamblers and business associates. Curtis easily fills the glamorous lead role, and he chose his director wisely — this is the first feature film credit for Norman Jewison, who would become one of the most successful and celebrated film directors of the next decade.

 

Slick manager Steve McCluskey (Tony Curtis) works hard keeping the Villa d’Oro casino running smoothly, bringing in gambling revenue for his boss Bernie Friedman (Phil Silvers). His staff idolizes him: his main assistant Swing (Warren Stevens), the fussy show director Julius (Howard Morris), his casual girlfriend/cashier Bambi (Karen Steele), his sidekick and personal helper Floyd (Larry Storch). Steve’s current problem is dodging the efforts of his ex-wife Liz (Mary Murphy) to collect his alimony, whenever he crosses the state line into California. Liz’s attorney Louie Blanchard (Kevin McCarthy) has both local car dealer Cranston (Stubby Kaye) and the thuggish private detective Bassett (Tom Reese) forever dogging McCluskey, waiting for him to slip up.

Steve does his best to get along with the beautiful casino entertainer Chris Lockwood (Suzanne Pleshette). Even though she’s the niece of the big boss Bernie, Chris is a good singer. Just as Steve becomes interested in her, a bigger problem arises. Losing gambler Howard Piper (Gregg Palmer) dies in a car crash, leaving his 8-year-old daughter Penny (Claire Wilcox) in the casino lobby. Unable to tell Penny that her father is gone, Steve and Chris try to keep her busy and happy. Doing so eventually entails an extravagant trip to Disneyland in Anaheim… which of course makes Steve fair game for his ex-wife’s summons servers.

 

All the elements in 40 Pounds of Trouble are in place for passable light entertainment. But it really doesn’t want to gel, thanks to a screenplay that dawdles too much. The large cast isn’t an asset either as they aren’t Runyonesque caricatures that are entertaining in themselves, and the script makes most of them superfluous. Norman Jewison’s smart direction does wonders with little Claire Wilcox, who is natural and charming at all times. Perhaps the problem is that there’s so little conflict. Steve’s on good terms with everyone, even his wife’s lawyer, and the pursuit of the oafish Bassett doesn’t pose much of a threat. Even the romantic angle is low-key. The adorable Suzanne Pleshette looks game for anything but her stylish singer is mainly along for the ride.

The unique element in the film is that sixteen full minutes take place at the original Disneyland, which provides a wonderful time capsule of the theme park just when its 2nd generation rides were all fresh and new — the monorail, etc.. It’s pleasant enough but slow-going. When detective Bassett chases Steve through the various Disney ‘lands’ we know too well that nothing is going to happen. The sequence soon sags, and hits bottom with a laugh-challenged encounter with some Keystone Kops on Main Street. Sure enough, after its Disneyland jaunt the movie continues for another fairly aimless twenty minutes before all ends happily ever after.

Although I can’t say that any actor gets a chance to shine, it is fun to recognize faces as they flash by — were they all pals of Mr. Curtis?  We easily spot Jack La Rue (The Story of Temple Drake) but don’t really connect Mary Murphy with her famed role in The Wild One. We looked for but did not catch Sharon Farrell. Viewers can’t miss Tom Reese; four years later he chased Dean Martin around a beach wearing a metal plate on his head, in the weak Matt Helm spy movie Murderer’s Row. Young Diane Ladd is given a single line to say; we’re told it’s her first movie.


The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of the Tony Curtis Collection gives us the three films in bright and spotless transfers, with those big U-I globe logos as handsome as we remember them back in the day. Colors are fine on the first and third films, and Robert Burks’ precise B&W work on the Robert Mulligan movie does a lot to disguise its relative small budget.

All three films are presented with original trailers, that sell them well enough to their prospective audiences. Kino has also commissioned new commentaries. David Del Valle and C. Courtney Joyner take on Furlough dispensing opinions about the quality of the acting (they too like Elaine Stritch) and criticizing Tony Curtis’s narcissist-wolf screen persona. They get a few names wrong but make nice points such as identifying James Lanphier from Blake Edwards’ The Party (in brown-face).

Kat Ellinger takes on both Impostor and Trouble, assisted on the third film by Mike McPadden. Her unbroken stream of thought flows without a break on Impostor as she compares the film to the book and digs deep into the films of Robert Mulligan. I listened carefully and there is a structure to what she says. We find out more about Trouble here simply because the Norman Jewison film hasn’t been discussed much before. I don’t think it ‘begins like a spy movie so relates to the first James Bond film,’ but Ellinger and McPadden are spot on about the film’s overall lush look, especially in Curtis’s casino.

McPadden says he’s on board because he’s a Disneyland enthusiast. We learn that this was the only feature allowed to film in the park until about twenty seconds of action were seen in Tom Hanks’ 1996 That Thing You Do (although the whole band The Wonders doesn’t go there, just the Bass Player and some Marines). We readily believe that a studio film unit would greatly disrupt park functions — and would distract from the viable magic spell that the park definitely had in ’62. Actor Tom Reese is identified as Kevin McCarthy, which is no big deal. It felt sad to learn that Ms. Ellinger always wanted to go to Disneyland as a kid and couldn’t… which of course is reality for the vast majority of global citizens. She’s welcome to my memories of the place any time.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Tony Curtis Collection
Blu-ray rates:
Movies: Furlough Very Good +Plus; Impostor Excellent; Trouble Good -minus
Video: all three Excellent
Sound: all three Excellent
Supplements: Furlough: Audio commentary by David Del Valle & C. Courtney Joyner, trailer; Impostor: Audio commentary by Kat Ellinger, trailer; Trouble: Audio commentary by Kat Ellinger and Mike McPadden, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Three Blu-rays in three keep cases in card sleeve
Reviewed:
July 30, 2020
(6318tony)

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.