Reason #473 that I love boutique labels such a Kino Lorber: they allow us to dig into various genres and subgenres, or plumb the depths of a director or actor’s career. The other day some critic was complaining on Twitter that far too many people writing about cinema weren’t well versed in the lesser films of a given genre. Everybody knows the classics but few have watched the not-so-classics, or the pretty-good movies of a given genre or time period. Labels like Kino Lorber are helping me and others to fill in those gaps.
Case in point: this new collection of Tony Curtis films. None of these films would be considered classics. If you were to come up with a list of films to see starring the actor, these films would not crack the top ten. Yet if you were wanting to dig deeper into Curtis’ career (or the careers of the three great directors who helmed these films – Norman Jewison, Blake Edwards, and Robert Mulligan), this set is a great place to start. These are exactly the sort of mid-level films that would be difficult to watch without the fantastic work being done by boutique labels. God bless ’em, every one.
The Perfect Furlough (1958) is a light, silly, enjoyable little romantic comedy that you’ll completely forget the moment the credits roll. Were it not for the great cast (Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Keenan Wynn, and Elaine Stritch) and that it was directed by a pre-Breakfast at Tiffany’s Blake Edwards, you could easily call it a perfectly fine Sunday afternoon movie. But as such, I can’t help feel a little disappointed by what could have been.
The Army has a problem. They’ve sent a hundred or so men up to the North Pole to build a secret base, with secret purposes. So secret that the film never gets around to telling us about it. They’ve been up there seven months but they are starting to get listless and restless. The work has slowed. It needs to be finished in a year. Something needs to be done.
Col. Leland (Les Tremayne) calls in a group of psychologists to find some way of increasing moral. One psychologist, Lt. Vicki Loren (Janet Leigh), the only woman in the bunch, something that Leland (and the camera) pays much attention to as they stare at her legs beneath his desk, has an idea. Give the men the perfect furlough. It has already been established that they can’t send every man on leave as the work has a deadline, but if one man has the absolute best time, then all the other men can live vicariously through the lucky guys’ adventures.
The furlough will be several weeks in Paris accompanied by glamorous movie star Sandra Roca (Linda Cristal). The men draw lots. Cpl. Paul Hodges (Tony Curtis) gambles, cajoles, and cheats his way into grabbing most of the lots for himself but still loses. After a bit of fast talk, he convinces the real winner that he’d be better off staying on base and away Hodges goes.
With the lottery won and the press notified, the Army then decides to do a little background checking on Hodges. Turns out every place he’s been stationed, he’s found a way to run off with one local beauty or another. In a word, he’s a healthy bachelor. Apparently, the Army can’t handle the thought that a good-looking soldier who spent the last seven months stationed at the North Pole might have sex on the brain when he spends a few weeks in Paris with a movie star. Or at least fictional movies made in 1958 about such a story couldn’t handle such things.
Lt. Loren is sent along with Liz Baker (Elaine Stritch) from Sandra Roca’s agency to Paris to ensure that Hodges doesn’t have too much fun. He sneaks out, Loren pulls him back in. He sneaks out again, he’s caught again. Etc. and so forth. It is all lighthearted and silly, and mildly entertaining. The height of comedy is when Roca accidentally falls into a vat of wine which is followed shortly by Lt. Loren falling into the same vat. The leads do their best to keep things popping and Edwards moves things along quickly. But it never provides a good belly laugh or even a guffaw. Considering the talent, I can’t help but think this could have been so much more enjoyable.
In The Great Imposter (1961), Curtis stars as Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr., a real-life con-man who spent his life impersonating a variety of people including a Trappist monk, a doctor of psychology, a deputy prison warden, and a naval surgeon. If you’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, then you get the idea. Except where that film is a manic, buoyant, barrel of fun, The Great Imposter is more, well not serious exactly, but less energetic, less full of life.
We start with Demara (Robert Crawford as a boy, Tony Curtis as an adult) in his youth constantly being told that he has to face facts, that having dreams is all good and well when you are a kid but as you get older you have to settle. You can’t have what you really want so you take what you can get. He doesn’t buy that bit of wisdom as a kid and flashing forward a few years, we find he hasn’t bought into that as an adult either.
When he learns the Army won’t give him the promotion he thinks he deserves despite passing all the tests because he doesn’t have a high school diploma, he goes A.W.O.L. and joins the Marines. But when he learns the F.B.I will be doing a background check on him, he fakes suicide and joins the monks for a spell. He learns to forge documents and becomes a doctor and then a deputy warden. There he takes on the hardest of prisoners and softens them with kindness. A friend from the past enters the prison, forcing Demara’s exit. So he becomes a surgeon in the Canadian Navy.
Director Robert Mulligan keeps things moving so quickly we never get a feel for him in any of his many positions. Curtis has enough charm to keep me watching, but my mind kept turning to Catch Me If You Can. That’s a film that I love, that has real charm, humor, and actual pathos. This one has none of those things. Once in awhile, a little bit of tension builds and we wonder if he’s going to get caught, but then Curtis gives the camera a wink and just like that he’s onto the next adventure.
It is based on a book that purports to be based on facts. A little digging leads me to believe no one actually did that much digging into the story so what is truth and what is fiction gets a little murky. I did find it interesting that the real Demara as well as the fictional one kept choosing difficult paths instead of easy ones. Why chose a fake life to live if it leads you to being a monk, a prison warden, and a surgeon? Those jobs seem both difficult and dangerous and could easily lead to being caught. But whatever, that was his life I suppose and not mine. This film is certainly more interesting than any movie would be based upon my own life, but not by that much, actually. If my life had a score by Henry Mancini like this one, we’d be at even odds.
With 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), Tony Curtis is back into lighthearted romantic comedy territory. Here he plays Steve McClusky, a casino manager who has to have everything just-so – like Robert De Niro in Casino, only without the hammers. Everything is going smoothly until a little girl shows up. She is Penny Piper (Claire Wilcox) and she’s been left at the casino by her deadbeat dad who turns up dead. Before they know this, the casino staff all pitch in to help Penny, thinking the father has just split for a day or two. When they learn of the accident, they are afraid of a scandal. What would the casino board think if they knew they’d been harboring a little girl? Worse still, what would the crime boss from Chicago who owns the hotel do if he found out?
There’s a romantic interest in lounge singer Chris Lockwood (Suzanne Pleshette) and the two of them fall in love with the ever precocious Penny. For the first 2/3rds of its 106-minute runtime, 40 Pounds of Trouble is a delight. The girl is cute and Tony Curtis is at the top of his charming game. It is super fun watching everyone run around trying to please the kid and still run a casino. But then in its last act, it becomes one long commercial for Disneyland.
The thing is McClusky used to be married to a lady in California. Though she is quite wealthy, she has sued for alimony, meaning if he leaves Reno and steps foot in California, then he’ll be served papers and arrested. But Penny is just dying to go to Disneyland so he takes her, even though the ex has multiple detectives on the lookout. They make it to Disney and the film spends a good twenty minutes showing them on just about every ride in the theme park, causing the narrative to stop in its tracks but Disney’s stock prices to presumably rise, rise, rise. Eventually, the cops figure out where McClusky is and we’re treated to a pretty fun chase through the park, but by then I was just ready for the proceedings to be over. But up until Disney, this is a sugar-coated bit of fun.
Each film comes with a new audio commentary from a film historian (David Del Valle for The Perfect Furlough, Kat Ellinger for the other two) and some trailers.
The three films presented in The Tony Curtis Collection are not the actor’s greatest accomplishments. They are mid-tier films that are moderately entertaining, but important in understanding the great actor’s career. It is a blessing to have them in such quality.