A Newly Widened Screen: Two Steve Martins and a Black Scorpion

As some of you may recall, there was once a time when television sets were great big, bulky, boxy contraptions that weighed more than an entire average American family did immediately after eating Thanksgiving dinner. Shortly before the manufacturers of these electronic babysitters began making the lightweight widescreen models we know and (possibly) love, the world was introduced to DVD; a revolutionary new home video concept wherein we could finally see digital transfers of movies we (potentially) adored in their original theatrical aspect ratios. Sadly, some early DVD releases did not bring us the widescreen video presentations we had hoped for, and were formatted solely for great big, bulky, boxy television sets.

Warner Home Video itself released a number of budget-priced DVDs during this time, most of which were presented full frame/pan-and-scan. And while a few of those old releases managed to reemerge as widescreen Blu-rays over the last couple of years (more than ten years after the advent of DVD itself, mind you), there were still quite a number of catalog titles that I, frankly, had given up all hope for. And then, it happened: an update from the Warner Archive proudly announcing that some of these movies were getting new Manufactured-on-Demand re-issues in anamorphic widescreen? Among these re-releases are the likes of Running on Empty (1988), Joe’s Apartment, and the three titles I’m covering here: a classic 1950’s creature feature and two of my favorite Steve Martin comedies.

I guess we’ll go chronologically for these discs, which means I shall begin with easily the most anticipated release out of the lot for the classic sci-fi/horror movie lover out there, The Black Scorpion: a rare Mexican-American co-production from 1957. Here, Richard Denning – despite being killed by the Creature from the Black Lagoon three years earlier – is back to battle yet another monster. Or monsters, rather (plural), as there are many smaller critters around to menace Mexican and ‘Muricans alike in this tale of a newly-formed volcano (rare) also bringing with it a number of giant Pulmonoscorpius kirktonensis (even rarer).

Denning, who would later become a staple on the original Hawaii Five-O (you know, the good one?) as the Governor, is a geologist who, along with his partner-in-crime Carlos Rivas, try to figure out a way to save the world (well, the American continents, I suppose) while eyeing the shapely talents of Ms. Mara Corday. Bob Johnson, who is best known for the man who would say “Good morning, Mr. Phelps” time and time again on the original Mission: Impossible (you know, the good one) provides the voice for at least three different announcers and narrates as well – which should give you some idea as to the budget of this one. Willis O’Brien, creator of the original iconic stop-motion special effects seen in the original King Kong (you know, the good one!), also designed some of the monsters for this one, while a limited budget resulted in several lesser effects shots during some scenes, which have garnered more than a few chuckles over the years.

In fact, The Black Scorpion was one of the earliest movies riffed on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I think I still have a VHS recording of that one from the date it originally aired when I was living in Coronado. Thankfully, the special features included on the original (now out of print) full frame Warner Bros. DVD have been ported over for this fresh widescreen re-release. Those items include an interview with the late Ray Harryhausen reminiscing about Willis O’Brien, a segment from Irwin Allen’s The Animal World (by Harryhausen and O’Brien), two stop-motion test films entitled The Las Vegas Monster and The Beetlemen (no, they’re not a British rock group), and trailers for other monster movies of the same ilk. The new video transfer is accompanied by (what I believe to be the same) mono English audio track from before.

Moving up into that glorious time known as the ’80s, we find ourselves with an homage to many an absurd ’50s sci-fi movie, The Man with Two Brains. The 1983 comedy, one of several memorable collaborations between then-reigning funnyman Steve Martin and the previously-crowned Carl Reiner, finds Martin as a gift brain surgeon sporting the unenviable surname Hfuhruhurr. When he accidentally hits a fleeing, gold digging Kathleen Turner – who had just caused her latest rich husband to have a heart attack – he is forced to operate on the lovely-looking stranger. Soon, he himself has fallen prey to the conniving creature’s games and superb cockteasing skills. Things go from bad to weird once the newly-married couple head to Vienna for their honeymoon and Martin meets crazed scientist David Warner (in perhaps his greatest unsung performance) who keeps a supply of brains alive in jars.

To sum it up in a matter of words, The Man with Two Brains is pure early Steve Martin. The jokes come fast – often right out of nowhere – and the movie includes what is not only the hardest (most hilarious) drunk test in the entire world, but one of the greatest cameo appearances ever by Merv Griffin; a nearly sublime moment which rivals even that of Rick Moranis’ many spoofings of him on SCTV. Paul Benedict also has a great part as David Warner’s townhouse butler, busty Randi Brooks (and her two friends) as a woman of an ungodly profession with a voice of an unbearable resonance, and bits by James Cromwell and Sissy Spacek – the latter of whom provides the song-loving voice of a disembodied brain. The new Warner Archive DVD sports a much better-looking 1.85:1 widescreen transfer, and has as many special features as the early cheapo version: none whatsoever.

Lastly, we have a Steve Martin movie of another color. Well, his hair certainly sports a different color in the Herbert Ross/Nora Ephron/Goldie Hawn co-production My Blue Heaven, the 1990 mobster comedy that even my Steve Martin-hating of a father admitted was a good film once. In fact, the aforementioned Rick Moranis – in his post SCTV/Dave Thomas days – joins Martin for the third time in cinematic history (their penultimate pairing) in order to make this one as perfect as can be. Here, in a story loosely based on Henry Hill, the subject of much bigger movie from the same year, Goodfellas, Steve is a loveable hotshot East Coast mobster of a decidedly diminished intellectual capacity who goes into the Witness Protection Program, only to get shipped out to a suburban Southern Californian hell for his troubles with his ever-sufferable wife (Deborah Rush).

Rick Moranis is the somewhat wet behind the ears, no-nonsense FBI man assigned to guard his client, who has a lot of old buddies out there who are very anxious to find him. Joan Cusack has a fine co-starring role as an equally serious district attorney, who our top man tries to pair with his unwanted federal agent friend – resulting in a cheery dance number between Moranis and Cusack on the beach of the Hotel del Coronado (also see: Wicked, Wicked), filmed roughly around the same time I was a few blocks away recording a certain episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (if only I had known…). Carol Kane, Bill Irwin, Daniel Stern, and William Hickey also appear in this, one of the few flicks from the ’90s that still manages to delight. Interestingly, at one point, Martin was supposed to be the G-Man, with Arnold Schwarzenegger taking on the role of the kindly mobster. Sadly, Arnold chose to do Kindergarten Cop instead (which started the decline of his career).

Like The Man with Two Brains, the Warner Archive’s widescreen re-issue of My Blue Heaven, boasts a nice new 1.85:1 print. Anyone hoping for special features this time ’round will once again be disappointed, as this disc is a barebones affair as well (the Warner Archive generally only includes special features that were already produced, just so you know). That said, I don’t mind not having the hilarious PG-friendly trailer of My Blue Heaven (wherein an annoyed Martin’s appropriate response towards an all-too-chipper supermarket clerk was replaced with a very noticeably different “Up yours!”). And why don’t I mind? Because I can finally watch one of my favorite comedies from the ’90s (and there aren’t that many of those) in widescreen.

I shouldn’t have to tell you that I heartily recommend these three titles, and those of you looking to upgrade those old five-dollar DVDs (which still line bargain bins around the nation for the same price, even after 16 years) can breathe a sigh of relief, for relief is here at last. Thank you, Warner Archive!

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Luigi Bastardo

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