- Posted: 10:12 AM, May 22, 2012
Fox, which has mostly chosen to license deep-catalogue debuts to Blu-ray and DVD distributors like the Criterion Collection, Twilight Time and Shout! Factory in recent years, has just issued its first new title since last year's sole new-to-format release, "Stars and Stripes Forever.'' John Huston's "The Barbarian and the Geisha'' (1958) is available on Blu-ray as a Walmart exclusive as well as through other retail channels on DVD as part of the 10-title "John Wayne Film Collection'' (which also draws on previously available films from MGM's United Artists library).
One of only two major Wayne films previously unavailable in North America on digital formats -- Henry Hathaway's "Circus World'' (1964), apparently owned by the Weinsteins, can be had only as an import -- "Barbarian'' is a filmed-in-Japan curiosity that marked something of a low point in the careers of the star and the director. According to Peter Bogdanovich, Wayne and Huston actually came to blows while making their only film together. There certainly isn't much in the way of on-screen action in this great-looking but sober account of Townsend Harris, who was dispatched by President Franklin Pierce as the first U.S. ambassador to Japan in 1856.
Landing at the Port of Shimoda accompanied only by his wise European translator (an excellent Sam Jaffe), Harris is ordered to leave by the local governor (So Yamamura), who doesn't recognize a treaty signed by the Japanese government with Admiral Perry two years earlier. But Harris persists in staying, and the governor eventually provides him with Okichi (former dancer Eiko Ando) a geisha whose duties including spying on Harris.
Not a whole lot happens until Harris helps quell a cholera epidemic (Wayne is carrying a torch he uses on infected residences in most of the poster art). The grateful accompanies Harris to Edo (as Tokyo was then known) for an audience with the shogun, who Harris wants to sign a new treaty opening Japan to the west.
There's an assassination, an attempted assasination, a ritual suicide, and a doomed -- and very chaste -- romance between Harris and Okichi in a film that's very much a travelogue, beautifully shot by Daniel Clarke in CinemaScope and Deluxe Color that's nicely rendered for its first video availablity since VHS days. The interiors are quite lavish, and the second part of the film is largely given over to court rituals, including an archery tournament.
Wayne seems bemused to be miscast as a diplomat in an expensive film that was a notable box-office and critical failure upon its release. In his autobiography, Huston virtually disowned the film -- claiming that Wayne directed retakes in Hollywood after Huston left for Africa to make "The Roots of Heaven'' (another big Fox flop of the era, it debuted earlier this year via Twilight Time). This was Wayne's first major film for Fox since Raoul Walsh's 1930"The Big Trail'' (another famous flop also available on Blu-ray as a Walmart exclusive).
"The Barbarian and the Geisha'' doesn't really show signs of post-production tampering -- it's remarkably consistent and low-key all the way through. Despite its reputation, it's not at all a howler like "The Conqueror'' (1956), in which Wayne was ludicrously miscast as Genghis Khan.
The DVD's sole features are a series of Fox Movietone Newsreels showing premieres around the world -- with Ando filling in for the absent Wayne and Huston.
Most interesting is the New York premiere, a benefit for the City College Fund (before he left for Japan, Harris headed NYC's board of education and created what became the City College of New York, the first free collee in the U.S. and my alma mater). This premiere drew CCNY alumnus Bernard Baruch, as well as future Hollywood mogul Robert Evans and Rona Jaffe, the author of "The Best of Everything,'' whose movie version was then shooting in New York with Evans in what turned out to be his final acting role. Rona, incidentally, was no relation to Sam Jaffe, another CCNY alumnus, making his first appearance in a Hollywood film since being blacklisted following "The Day the Earth Stood Still'' seven years earlier.
The Warner Archive Collection has revived the "Forbidden Hollywood'' label -- used for four TCM-branded DVD sets and by MGM/UA when it was handling Turner titles back in the VHS era -- for its pre-code offerings (the six previously announced RKO pre-codes arriving today do not carry the label).
The first six titles that do, all theatrically released by Warner, are scheduled for June 26. From 1933, there are Howard Bretherton and William Keighley's lurid prison drama "Ladies They Talk About'' starring Barbara Stanwyck and Preston Foster; Mervyn LeRoy's "Hard to Handle'' (1933) with James Cagney and Mary Brian; and Roy Del Ruth's "The Mind Reader'' starring Warren William and Constance Cummings. Plus a pair of William Powell vehicles from 1932 directed by William Dieterle: the Lubitshcean "Jewel Robbery'' with Kay Francis, and "Lawyer Man'' co-starring Joan Blondell. Also include is Francis's WB debut, playing a married magazine editor who tarries with secretary David Manners in Dieterle's "Man Wanted'' (1932).
Other titles newly available for pre-order at the Warner Archive website include six Red Skeleton vehicles set for June 12, including his two best -- Edward Sedgwick's "A Southern Yankee'' (1949) with Brian Donlevy (and Buster Keaton acting as an off-camera comedy constructionist) and Jack Donohue's "The Yellow Cab Man'' (1950) with Gloria DeHaven, as well as Donohue's "Watch the Birdie'' (1950) with Dahl and Ann Miller. Plus Skeleton's last three films for MGM: Don Weis' "Half a Hero'' (1953) with Jean Hagen; Robert Leonard's "The Clown'' (1953), a non-boxing remake of "The Champ'' with Tim Considine in Jackie Cooper's old role; and Leonard's "The Great Diamond Robbery'' (1954) with Cara Williams.
For June 19, WAC is promising Rudolph Mate's ironically-titled "For the First Time'' (1959), starring Mario Lanza and released to the best notices of his career seven weeks before Lanza's death. Curtis Bernhardt's "The Doctor and the Girl'' (1959) starring Glenn Ford, Gloria DeHaven and Charles Coburn, is scheduled for July 24.