As it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Twilight Time brings you substantial doses of that old time religion among the four December hi-def Blu-ray titles due for holiday season unwrapping. The clash between the Roman Catholic Church and the English crown hovers over a powerful 16th-century ruler’s determination to secure a male heir for the monarchy. A Scottish immigrant rises to prominence as a Presbyterian preacher in his adopted America through the ringing eloquence that channels his commonsensical and ecumenical approach to Christian scripture and human values. Two priests under siege by invading Communist troops at their mission in revolution-roiled 1949 China stand as a faith-fortified bulwark with wry humor and unwavering courage. Meanwhile, lest you blanch at an overabundance of virtue (although Richard Burton’s King Henry VIII offers a wickedly carnal counteragent) on this release slate, there’s a fourth offering headlined by the acclaimed actor’s legendary spouse Elizabeth Taylor that’s a scalding swinging ’70s remedy to any normal and noble marital relationship behavior for those viewers wanting to party hard. Preorders are now open for the December 18 TT Blu-ray disc premieres of Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), A Man Called Peter (1955), Satan Never Sleeps (1962) and X Y & Zee (1972) at www.screenarchives.comand www.twilighttimemovies.com.
Born 128 years ago today, visionary German director Fritz Lang (1890-1976) was a free-lance American émigré with a distinctive reputation and three Hollywood productions – Fury (1936), You Only Live Once (1937) and You and Me (1938) – under his belt, and in the fall of 1939, seeking more work that would appeal to his specific sensibilities. His appreciation of art struck a chord with art collector and newly establishing talent agent Stanley Jaffe. As reported by Patrick McGilligan in his 1997 biography Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast, Jaffe responded to Lang speaking “keenly about the culture and history of Indians, which appeared to be something of a passion for him. Jaffe had a brainstorm. Wouldn’t it be an interesting idea, he thought, to get this refugee from Hitler a contract to direct an American Western? Twentieth Century Fox, Jaffe knew, was planning a sequel to Jesse James . Proposing Fritz Lang as the director of a Western might sound ridiculous on the surface, Jaffe knew. But if Jaffe could bring the director together with Kenneth Macgowan for lunch, he was certain the two would find common ground…which is the way it happened. The producer was impressed by Lang, and, with Jaffe’s contrivance, promoted the idea to production head Darryl Zanuck. Zanuck thought the gimmick of Lang directing his first Western was publicity-rich and asked to meet the out-of-work filmmaker, face-to-face.” Jaffe gave Lang a crucial piece of advice before the meeting and he took it, substituting eyeglasses for his trademark monocle, and Zanuck was “predictably enchanted” and soon afterward, Lang’s next announced film would be The Return of Frank James (1940). When asked about his choice of an artsy German director to helm a sagebrush saga, Zanuck replied: “Because he’ll see things we won’t.”
This entry into outlaw territory reunited the director with Henry Fonda, “the rising star whom Lang had tortured during You Only Live Once.” Actor and filmmaker resolved to get along better this time, and Lang eagerly dove into his preproduction learning curve on this follow-up film, which deviated from historical fact in Sam Hellman’s screenplay by painting the notorious sibling as a basically decent man who sought to reject his lawbreaking past and merely settle a personal score with his brother’s killer, who was pardoned after standing trial. McGilligan observes: “Studio edict would make this one of Fritz Lang’s rare ‘exterior’ films, with most of the outdoor scenes to be shot northeast of Los Angeles, near the Sierra Nevadas. Adapting to the new Technicolor process was another of the challenges. [It also marked the first color work for director of photography George Barnes, whose astonishing black-and-white work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), a March release, would earn him an Academy Award®.] ‘As an example,’ Lang explained on one occasion, ‘let’s say it is night, and a woman lies in bed with her head against a white pillow, and a man stands against a dark wall. You have a close-up of this woman, who is well-lit by a lamp on the night table and, with the white pillow, you have a bright background. Not you cut to the man against a dark wall. White – black. Shocks you. Therefore, with a little thought and experimentation, I learned that if you have consecutive close-ups with the backgrounds lit in a similar way, your eyes weren’t shocked. Another thing (which became especially important later when you were shooting in Cinemascope) was that if you have a shot in subdued color of, say, a woman with an apple in her hand – every painter can tell you that your eye will immediately be attracted to the red apple. So I learned to avoid points of bright light, of reflecting glass or bright color.’”
Unfortunately, learning new filmcraft approaches didn’t offset Lang’s hard-edged personality, and colorful and cutting behavior on the director’s part made the experience stormy for Fonda and his younger co-stars Jackie Cooper (playing the orphaned son of a dead James Gang member) and film-debuting Gene Tierney, playing, according to McGilligan, “a newspaper reporter writing up the Frank James legend while falling in love with him (although, as the project progressed, Zanuck insisted on playing down the romantic angle).” As Cooper would tell it, “He wanted everybody to be a puppet. He would tell you when to put your elbow on the table and when to take it off. He would tell you how to read a line. Everything was a picture to Fritz, and actors were not important at all.” “Personal problems aside,” The Motion Picture Guide editors Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross asserted, “The Return of Frank James is a beautifully photographed Western which deemphasizes action in favor of mood, atmosphere and character detail.” Nonetheless, fanciful at it is with regard to history, the film did its job, coming in on budget, emerging as a summer box-office success, and securing successive Fox gigs for Lang to make the 1941 duo Western Union (yes, another Technicolor Western) and Man Hunt, and 1942’s Moontide. Also starring John Carradine as the treacherous Bob Ford, Charles Tannen as brother Charlie Ford, Henry Hull as a sympathetic newspaper editor and Donald Meek as a nasty railroad executive, The Return of Frank James brings Langian-flavored frontier justice January 22 to Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open January 9.