The Columbus Moving Picture Show (successor to the venerable Cinevent, 1969-2021) convened for its second annual meeting this past Memorial Day Weekend, and as has become traditional, the Wexner Center for the Arts on the Ohio State University campus presented a double-feature screening on Wednesday evening in conjunction with the upcoming classic film convention in downtown Columbus. Unlike last year’s double feature at “The Wex”, where we’re still waiting for decent home-video issues of Me and My Gal (1932) and The Warrior’s Husband (1933), I’m pleased to report that one of this year’s features is already available in a beautifully-restored Blu-ray, with the other coming soon. Both restorations — in super-sharp 4K — are the work of the 3-D Film Archive, whose founder Bob Furmanek was present at the Wexner Center to introduce each feature and conduct a Q&A session to top off the evening. (Furmanek and the 3-D Film Archive were also responsible for the splendid 4K restorations of The Maze and Gog [both 1953] that screened at the Wexner Center the night before Cinevent 50 in 2018.)
First on the bill was Jack and the Beanstalk (1952) with Abbott and Costello. This one, I hasten to clarify, was never in 3-D, but the 3-D Film Archive has made it a project to preserve the films that Abbott and Costello produced independent of their contract with Universal Pictures (Universal-International from 1946 until the team broke up in 1957). The Archive has already issued Africa Screams (1949, produced by Nassour Studios, distributed by United Artists) and the first season of A&C’s 1952-54 TV show. Season Two of the syndicated series is listed on the Archive’s Current Projects page, and I seem to recall Bob Furmanek expressing an interest in restoring Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (like Jack and the Beanstalk, filmed in SuperCinecolor and released through Warner Bros. in 1952) — but don’t quote me on that, I may have misheard him. Anyhow, Meet Captain Kidd is already available in a “Remastered Edition” from the Warner Archive Collection.
But back to Jack and the Beanstalk. If that Warner Archive edition of Meet Captain Kidd is remastered to look as good as the version of Jack that Bob Furmanek brought to the Wexner Center, I’ll be awfully surprised.
It certainly helps to have the picture’s color looking the way it should — better, possibly, than some prints looked even in 1952. Like The Wizard of Oz, Jack opens with a “real life” framing story in sepia tone, switching to color for the dream fantasy, then back again to wrap things up. Earlier TV and video versions have had the sepia in plain black-and-white, plus the color in something washed-out, red-shifted, or both. Getting these elements back to what they should be raises the whole game, as you can see from the examples at right — reminding us once again, for those who still need it, how completely movies depend on technology properly applied.
A word about the color. Properly speaking, the process was SuperCinecolor, but in the movie’s posters, like the one above — and even in the onscreen credits — it was consistently identified as “SUPERcineCOLOR”. This may have been an effort to avoid the Cinecolor stigma, disdained as it was as a sort of impoverished bumpkin cousin of Technicolor. Actually, Cinecolor’s reputation was probably more a reflection of the quality of movies that used it than of the process itself. Long story short, it was originally a two-color process (similar to the early Two-Color Technicolor, but different enough to avoid infringing any patents), reproducing a decent but limited color palette. Like Technicolor before it, Cinecolor continued to experiment with a three-color process that would capture the full spectrum, and SuperCinecolor was the result — not as vivid or saturated as Technicolor, but not as cumbersome or expensive either. For a while it looked like a viable alternative for the budget-conscious, but the process was doomed by the early 1950s, barely twenty years after its original founding. Plagued by precarious finances, the Cinecolor Corp. was gobbled up by the Donner Corp. of Philadelphia and renamed Color Corporation of America. By 1955 it had completely withered away, taken over by corporations more interested in exploiting other color processes.
So how does Jack and the Beanstalk hold up after 71 years? Well, I don’t think even Abbott and Costello’s most devoted fans would rank Jack among the pair’s best pictures — A&C Meet Frankenstein (1948) gets that prize, surely, a mix of comedy and horror that wouldn’t be matched until Mel Brooks came along with Young Frankenstein. But I know from personal experience that by the early 1950s children were Abbott and Costello’s most loyal core audience; for the grownups, the novelty had worn off and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis had become the Latest Big Thing. Martin and Lewis were big with the kids too, for that matter, but we remained loyal to Bud and Lou even after our parents had moved on. So Jack and the Beanstalk was a canny shift to the new bullseye on Abbott and Costello’s target audience, and it’s as a kiddie-matinee picture that it works best today. Some of the early comic bits tend to fall flat, but that’s due mainly to the absence of accompaniment on the soundtrack; later on, when Heinz Roemheld’s musical score kicks in, it enhances the comedy considerably. Abbott and Costello perform with their accustomed bombastic, well-synchronized vigor, and director Jean Yarborough doesn’t get in their way. Costello, as Jack, is particularly spirited and agile (though his more athletic moves are courtesy of his lookalike stunt double Vic Parks). The rest of the cast, though, are rather lost without strong direction, and there Yarborough drops the ball; just about everyone except Bud and Lou looks under-rehearsed — especially the Johnny Conrad Dancers, consisting of the madly spinning Conrad and four young women, whose movements never coalesce into a united routine. (Nobody else in the supporting cast dances at all, they just stand around wishing the director would give them something to do.) Songwriters Lester Lee and Bob Russell are no threat to Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart, perhaps, but their five songs are catchy enough, and anybody who can find a rhyme for “obstreperous” is not to be sneezed at. (Okay, I know you’re wondering: It comes in “I Fear Nothing”, sung by Lou Costello as Jack: “I’ll be defiant/And be obstreperous/If any giant/Should try to salt-and-pepper us.”)
Bob Furmanek and the 3-D Film Archive have done Jack and the Beanstalk, Abbott and Costello, and us a great service with the restoration we saw at the Wexner Center. Restoring the picture to its 1952 look gives it a storybook sparkle and gaiety (in the original, literal sense) that more than redeems the movie’s shortcomings. That restoration is available from ClassicFlix at a reasonable price, with a boatload of bonus features, including a brief history of Cinecolor by Jack Theakston and an appreciation of the picture’s score from film-music expert Ray Faiola. It’s a limited edition Blu-ray, so if you’re interested, I advise you not to dawdle. And be sure to look for the ClassicFlix label. There are a lot of public-domain knockoffs out there — Amazon bristles with them — accept no substitutes.
The evening’s second feature, also a restoration from the 3-D Film Archive, was a genuine 3-D specimen, though it only played that way in a few theaters back in 1953. This was Robot Monster, famous among certain cinema connoisseurs as the movie shot in four days in the Bronson Canyon section of L.A.’s Griffith Park for $16,000 ($4,510.54 of which, according to Wikipedia, was because it was shot in 3-D). It tells the story of the last handful of survivors after a “Calcinator ray” fired by aliens from the moon has wiped out the human race. The alien agent on Earth, Ro-Man (George Barrows) is tasked by his commander, the “Great Guidance” (also Barrows), with exterminating these last remnants, but he (“it”?) has become infatuated with Alice (Claudia Barrett), daughter of the Professor and his wife (John Mylong and Selena Royle, billed as “Royale”).
Bob Furmanek is conscientious in his defense of Robot Monster, explaining its rampant absurdities by the fact that (spoiler alert!) it all turns out to be the fever dream of the Professor’s ten-year-old son Johnny (Gregory Moffett) — albeit with a twist that you may be able to figure out if you remember the original Invaders from Mars, released earlier that same year. This all-a-kid’s-nightmare premise, Mr. Furmanek says, can explain the story’s oddball touches. Like the fact that the “robot monster” of the title is really a gorilla in a spaceman helmet with rabbit-ears antennae. Or that at random moments the movie cuts away to stock footage of the battling iguanas from One Million B.C. (1940), stop-motion-animated triceratopses from Lost Continent (1951), rocket ships in flight from Rocketship X-M (1950) and Flight to Mars (1951), and matte paintings of a ruined New York from Captive Women (1952). Besides, as he told me during the intermission between features, “a bad movie is a movie that’s unwatchable, and Robot Monster is very watchable.”
I’m afraid my definition of a bad movie is more expansive than Mr. Furmanek’s. To me, Robot Monster is a stinker of stunning, World-Nadir proportions that makes Plan 9 from Outer Space look like Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
That said, however, there’s no denying that the picture is extremely watchable, hilariously so, and it’s only 66 minutes of your time; there are bad movies that may be somewhat better, but they eat up three or four hours you’ll never get back, and are unwatchable to boot. What’s more, this new restoration by the 3-D Film Archive really is a sight to behold — literally. I’d venture to guess that no lousy-movie maven who’s seen Robot Monster in the past 70 years has ever dreamed it could look this good. The review in Variety (June 17, ’53) called the 3-D “easy on the eyes, coming across clearly at all times”, and it’s true again now. The movie may still be a great gobbling turkey, but the 3-D Film Archive has cleaned it up spic-n-span and dressed it in its Sunday best. Also on the Wexner Center program was a nine-minute short, Stardust in Your Eyes, that played with Robot Monster in 1953, in which a cheesy nightclub comic named Slick Slaven (real name Trustin Howard) demonstrates 3-D for us via a parade of hit-or-miss Vegas-lounge impressions of James Cagney, Ronald Colman, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Charles Laughton.
That short will no doubt be among the bonus features on the 3-D Film Archive/Bayview Entertainment’s forthcoming Blu-ray of Robot Monster, which can be preordered here in advance of its July 25 release. The 3-D Archive promises a plethora of bonus features comparable to those on their Blu-ray of Jack and the Beanstalk, plus the option of watching the feature in 2-D, in polarized 3-D, or in anaglyphic (red/blue) 3-D, with one pair of glasses included. (I guess for the polarized glasses you’ll be on your own.) And you know what? I think I’ll hop over to the Archive’s Web site and order my own copy; might as well get it looking its best.
Abbott and Costello in sparkling color, plus Robot Monster in flawless 3-D; all in all, a pretty good way to set out on another weekend of classic movies in Columbus.