Since the laserdisc era, the Criterion Collection has been a beacon for how to handle home video releasing: pick films based on merit and/or significance then find or commission the best possible transfer and pair it with informative, often exclusive supporting features and original cover art. It’s a winning formula that the company has now applied to over 1000 titles (including laserdisc). Unfortunately for Region 2/B film fans, the Criterion beacon has always been frustratingly distant. Their discs were only released in North America and usually region locked. For more committed fans, these weren’t insurmountable problems, but the inconvenience and cost of importing and region hacking players aren’t ideal. Occasionally, Criterion would licence their content (the UK two-disk editions of Armageddon and My Own Private Idaho are essentially repackaged Criterions), but not with any consistency. In recent years other companies, most notably Eureka with their Masters of Cinema series, have copied the Criterion playbook, right down to the numbered spines, so that the trans-Atlantic quality gap is nothing like as big as in the early 2000s. Yet the gap still exists, so it can only be good news that Criterion have finally made it over here, initially with six blu-ray titles.
Though the Criterion name is probably most closely associated with the big names of world cinema such as Kurosawa and Bergman, the company has always had a healthy sideline in less obviously prestigious choices. From celebrating its 100th DVD release with a Beastie Boys music video anthology, to giving its seal of approval to not one but two Michael Bay films, Criterion can be relied upon for interesting, unexpected selections. It therefore seems fitting that of their first six UK releases two are from that most maligned of genres, the romantic comedy. Neither It Happened One Night nor Tootsie is particularly fashionable. Their respective directors, Frank Capra and Sydney Pollack, are more fondly remembered than revered. Yet both films are exceptional examples of their form, and are fully deserving of the care and attention their new discs have been given.
It Happened One Night
Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Robert Riskin
Based on a Short Story by: Samuel Hopkins Adams
Starring: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly
Running Time: 105 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
It Happened One Night carries the burden of being the first film to win the big five Oscars, taking Picture, Director, Screenplay (adapted), Actor and Actress in 1935. Given the Academy’s long-standing preference for weighty, worthy subject matter, this record can set-up first-time viewers to expect something different to what the film offers, which is completely charming entertainment. Frank Capra had previously made his big play for an Oscar with The Bitter Tea of General Yen. When that film underperformed, It Happened One Night was seen as a star-driven commercial property that would help repair Capra’s position at Columbia. Famously, getting stars to drive it was not easy; Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were not first choices and neither of them wanted to do it. Like Casablanca, the production benefitted from that rare Hollywood alchemy where each element worked together perfectly, far surpassing the expectations of everyone involved.
The plot follows an heiress (Colbert) who has married against her father’s wishes. Unwilling to annul the union, she elopes from Miami with a plan to reunite with her playboy husband in New York. On route, she encounters a hard-drinking, down on his luck reporter (Gable) who, sensing a story, offers to help. Desperate to avoid her father’s attempts to reclaim her, the pair are forced increasingly off track and into each other’s arms. Gable and Colbert are both excellent as head-strong individuals who are slow to realise their mutual attraction. It Happened One Night’s two most famous scenes, the hitchhiking demonstration and the ‘walls of Jericho’ give a misleading impression that it’s a battle of the sexes, but in reality the battle is very one sided, with Colbert taking most of the blows and Gable getting by with a few dents to his ego. As much as a romantic partnership, there’s a slightly queasy sense that Gable represents a more attractive replacement father figure for Colbert, a sense reinforced when he playfully spanks her for speaking out of line. It’s the one aspect of the picture that has dated badly.
Whereas many films of the early sound era have a staged quality, It Happened One Night takes place out in the world. Exterior scenes bustle with life, grounding the story in a particular time and place. When Colbert goes for a shower at an Autocamp, for instance, Capra elects to record her journey to the shower block in a long tracking shot, almost like a documentary. Not that the film has any real interest in grim realities; a surprising amount of the action takes place at night (not one, but several), lending what must have been a monotonous journey a sense of glamour and mystery.
Director: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: Larry Gelbart, Murray Schisgal, Don McGuire (story), Larry Gelbart (story), Barry Levinson (uncredited), Robert Garland (uncredited), Elaine May (uncredited)
Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, Bill Murray, Geena Davis
Running Time: 116 min
BBFC Certificate: 15
Released in 1982, Tootsie was also a product of its time. The studio-sponsored experimentation of the 1970s was over, but many of the stars and filmmakers from that period had endured, and were finding their way in an industry reinvested in traditional genres. Dustin Hoffman was one such figure, and he was not finding the journey straightforward. Since 1976 he had appeared in only three films and two of them, Agatha and Straight Time, were notoriously difficult productions that failed commercially. Luckily the third was Kramer vs Kramer, both a massive hit and the inspiration for the idea that became Tootsie.
While making Kramer vs Kramer, Hoffman began to muse on the relationship between genders and the role that gender played in personality. Over three years, he worked with various big name talents - including Hal Ashby, one ‘70s figure who failed the transition into the 80s - to fashion a narrative. Originally (the extras inform us) it was to be set in the world of professional tennis. Eventually, though, Hoffman elected for a situation closer to his own experience. He plays Michael Dorsey, a talented New York actor who has made himself all but unemployable with a ‘difficult’ reputation. Reduced to teaching, a chance comment while coaching a female student leads Michael to hatch a plan that will test his - and not coincidentally Hoffman’s - ability: to disguise himself as a woman to get a lucrative part on a daytime television soap.
Also a skilled amateur make-up artist, Michael is immediately convincing as aging single actress Dorothy Michaels and gets the job. The stage is then set for for a beautifully paced series of misunderstandings and complications as Dorothy becomes a hit, placing considerable pressure on Michael’s personal and professional life. As a woman, Michael quickly abandons his usual confrontational attitude as he has to deal with the dominant male personalities on set. At the same time, he begins to develop romantic feelings for his co-star, played by Jessica Lange.
Tootsie is a farce with a lot on its mind, a romantic comedy that wants its audience to think. It could not succeed as well as it does without Hoffman’s varied, subtle performance. He makes Michael and Dorothy believably different people while also scoring with moments of broad physical comedy. Equally, though, he is supported by an exceptional creative team. When Columbia Pictures refused to hire Ashby, the film ended up with Sydney Pollack, by the director’s own admission a safer, more mainstream choice. It is made abundantly clear in the disc’s special features that Hoffman and Pollack did not always see eye to eye, but Pollack put together a professional, engaging package that keeps the laughs coming without overwhelming the drama.
The script is credited to Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal, but numerous others including Elaine May and Barry Levinson contributed. The supporting cast is similarly stuffed with A-list talent. In addition to Lange, Teri Garr is Michael’s neurotic student, Dabney Coleman and George Gaynes are Dorothy’s on-set adversaries, Pollack himself plays Michael’s agent, Charles Durning is Lange’s widower father and Bill Murray is Michael’s disbelieving flatmate. Geena Davis also shows up in her film debut. All bring extra class to an already classy package, although that is not to say the film is without flaws.
Like the similarly well-meaning Kramer vs Kramer, Tootsie is torn between wanting to explore a social issue, and needing to function as a showcase for its star. In both films the result is that the female perspective is under represented, muddying their messages in the process. In several sequences, Tootsie thoughtfully questions gender roles as Dorothy and her female co-workers are repeatedly objectified, patronised and demeaned by their male counterparts. Unused to such treatment, Michael as Dorothy is in a position to fight against inequality that (the film argues) ‘real’ women accept as inevitable or don’t even perceive. However, the focus is so fixed on Hoffman that none of his female co-stars are really allowed their own stories, limiting the scope of any social criticism. Both Lange and Garr get some good moments, Lange knocking back glasses of wine to cope with her philandering boyfriend (Coleman) and Garr expressing mounting exasperation at the acting life, but they all take place in Michael/Dorothy’s presence. Ultimately Tootsie is about Michael’s personal impact and growth. At times, it comes uncomfortably close to suggesting that a man can be a better woman than women are themselves.
It is difficult to imagine either film looking or sounding better, given their age. It Happened One Night looks fantastic, with a heavy consistent grain. There are a couple of scenes where blacks become a little washed out, but the jump in quality from Sony’s dvd release is impressive. Tootsie is bright and clear and as sharp as 80s soft focus will allow. Again, it is streets ahead of the previous DVD.
As the more recent release, Tootsie has the more in-depth production-specific features. First is a commentary track recorded by Sydney Pollack for Criterion’s early ‘90s laserdisc. The emphasis is very much on the craft of filmmaking rather than the ideas the film explores. Speaking less than a decade after Tootsie’s release, Pollack has exceptional recall for specific production decisions and acting choices. A former acting teacher, he is clearly in awe of his cast, with Bill Murray’s improvisations singled out for particular praise. In the latter stages, the compliments begin to overwhelm the insight, but it’s well worth a listen.
Two documentaries are included. The first, The Making of Tootsie, was shot during production. The makers had astonishing access, with fly on the wall footage from the film’s pre-production following Hoffman in make-up tests and Pollock making deals. Short bursts of interview with the main players are extremely candid, with Pollock, for example, musing on his status as a second tier talent and both Pollock and Hoffman wrestling with the creative tension between them. Even Bill Murray talks, a rare event for special features not supporting a Wes Anderson production. The quality of the material sadly isn’t matched by the presentation. Footage is grainy and awkwardly framed and edited. An eclectic selection of music cues are randomly placed under sequences. It’s a glimpse of talented, committed people at the top of their game. It could be twice as long but needed putting together with more care. In contrast, the second, hour-long retrospective A Better Man: The Making of Tootsie (from the 2007 Sony DVD) is slick and professional, almost to a fault. All the main participants return (except Murray) to offer interesting thoughts and anecdotes. These are massaged by the editor into a single, linear narrative that tends to elide tensions and disagreements.
A new 18-minute interview with Hoffman confirms that tensions still exist. For all that the film was built to his specification, he calls it a “a Sydney Pollack picture” and laments his inability to hire Hal Ashby. Fairly rapidly he moves on to other topics, including The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Straight Time and Kramer vs Kramer. Hoffman, sometimes emotionally, discusses the casting process and his hopes for specific productions. In a second interview recorded for Criterion, Phil Rosenthal, the producer of Everybody Loves Raymond, offers his views on why Tootsie is great. Most of his observations on the the film’s technique are covered with more authority by Pollack elsewhere on the disk. He does at least raise feminist criticisms of the plot, if only to dismiss them.
Elsewhere in Criterion’s clean, easy to navigate menus (chapters for extras!) there are deleted scenes, including a good five-minute TV interview with Dorothy Michaels, and trailers.
For It Happened One Night, Criterion have gone heavy on context. The 1997 feature-length documentary Frank Capra’s American Dream is included in its entirety. Produced by the Capra estate and narrated by Ron Howard, it’s a good, very sympathetic overview of Capra’s life and career with an impressive cast of interviewees. Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Amy Heckerling and many others give their thoughts on Capra’s achievements. Almost unwatchably soft clips from the director’s career are a good reminder of the strength of the It Happened One Night’s restoration. Even more intent on burnishing Capra’s legacy, an hour-long AFI tribute to Capra covers much of the same ground. Made in 1982, it’s still recommended viewing because so many of Capra’s stars and contemporaries were still around to praise him. Jimmy Stewart hosts and Bette Davis and Claudette Colbert are among the guests.
Also included in Capra’s first film, the silent short, Fultah Fisher's Boarding House from 1921. Elsewhere in the extras we learn that Capra talked his way into the job with no experience of filmmaking. That doesn’t show in the end result, an atmospheric, if amusingly literal filming of Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Ballad of Fisher's Boarding House. Lines of the poem are shown on inter-titles, and then acted out.
More specific to It Happened One Night, Frank Capra Jr gives an overview of the production in a solid 12-minute introduction that was on the old Sony DVD. Also recycled from that release is the theatrical trailer, although audio extras including a commentary from Capra Jr and a radio adaptation of the film are absent. New for Criterion is Screwball Comedy?, a discussion between critics Molly Haskell and Phillip Lapote. It’s warm, fast-paced and informed and places the film into any number of contexts without necessarily nailing down its significance. Over nearly 40 minutes you learn a lot of details about Capra and his stars, but the conversation flits around as if they’re looking for a subject. It’s all very well to debate whether the film is a screwball comedy, but it would be nice to first get a sense of why the categorisation matters. They conclude by suggesting that the film stands out because it is ‘luminous’ and because of its ‘freshness,’ which, if nothing else, shows that the appeal of some films is beyond academic scrutiny.
It Happened One Night and Tootsie are both released on April 18th in the UK on Blu-Ray as part of The Criterion Collection.
Review by Jim Whalley