Natalie Wood Collection review, Natalie Wood Collection DVD review
Starring
Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, James Garner, Warren Beatty, Rosalind Russell, Tony Curtis, Christopher Plummer, Robert Redford
Director
Various
Natalie Wood Collection

Reviewed by Ross Ruediger

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atalie Wood wasn’t really what you’d call a great actress, but she was a great movie star. These days Hollywood seems to have far more of the latter than the former, so it could be argued that her screen presence helped pave the way for the molds of today. She had an endearing, girl-next-door quality that kept her in demand through most of her career, which ended tragically when she drowned in an accident in November 1981.

Over the years, Wood dipped her toe into many a genre: drama, comedy, farce, musicals, westerns, and sci-fi, to name but a few. This box set is a real mixed bag and certainly covers the gamut. As it collects only some of her Warner Bros. features, it’s by no means definitive, but it is an interesting look at the wide range of her work, and through these six movies you can very much see the actress growing up onscreen. Further, each disc features a classic Warner Bros. cartoon, which, to my mind, should be mandatory on every WB DVD.

The collection gets off to a rocky start with “Bombers B-52” (1957), a film for which Wood was given top billing and yet she is barely in. It’s one of those rah-rah, up with the military (in this case, the Air Force) pictures that was no doubt appreciated upon release, but by today’s standards seems woefully naïve. The real stars of the movie are Karl Malden and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. The former is a sergeant and mechanic, while the latter is a colonel and pilot. An incident in Korea leads to Malden taking an instant disliking to Zimbalist. Flash-forward to some years later, and Zimbalist wants to date Malden’s daughter (Wood). Malden is outraged and turns into an overprotective dad. The triangle is the most engaging aspect of the film, and yet it gets buried beneath all other manner of stodgy military drama via a screenplay that’s all over the place. The movie might have an audience somewhere today, but that audience isn’t me. Interestingly, Malden would go on to play with Wood again in “Gypsy” some years later; but we’re not quite there yet. Classic WB cartoon: “Boyhood Daze.”

Next up is “Cash McCall” (1960), which is slightly more relevant than “Bombers,” and yet still seems hopelessly dated. James Garner plays the titular character, a real Mr. Moneybags who buys failing businesses, whips them into shape, and then sells them for profit. One such business is Austen’s Plastics, which is owned by Lory’s (Wood) father, Grant (Dean Jagger). But Cash and Lory have met before, and he’s come back into her life to win her over. At the end of the day, which will win – big business or big love? Unfortunately, the real problem with “Cash McCall” is that it’s a very boring movie. It’s neither dramatic nor comedic enough to leave much of an impression, outside the performance of Jagger, who manages to stand above the often rather tedious fray. Garner and Wood have almost no chemistry, which is probably what was needed to make this thing tick. On the other hand, fans of “Mad Men” may just appreciate the finer details of the pic, since it echoes a very similar time and place to what’s portrayed on that series. Classic WB cartoon: “High Note.”

With “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), this set finally starts delivering, and it is very likely the best film of the six, along with being one of the finest performances in Wood’s career (she was, in fact, nominated for an Oscar for her work here). Set in 1920s Kansas, and based on the play by William Inge (“Picnic”), “Splendor” tells the story of Wilma Dean Loomis (Wood), known as Deanie to her friends and family. She is head over heels, hopelessly devoted to her high school boyfriend Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty in his film debut). But her desire to be everything to and for Bud is more than he can handle, and Deanie’s obsessive behavior eventually tears the couple apart, and drives her down the road of madness. Unlike the previous two films, “Splendor” remains as relevant a commentary on young love as “Romeo and Juliet,” and its examination of the effects of the Great Depression is most certainly timely. It’s a very sad movie that has some brief rays of hope at its conclusion. Wood is, indeed, at the top of her game here, and Beatty makes a solid impression in his first big screen outing. Also giving a fine, despicable performance is the late Pat Hingle as Bud’s obnoxious, bullying father. Last but not least, it’s worth mentioning that this was one of director Elia Kazan’s last pictures, and it definitely belongs up on the shelf next to “On The Waterfront” and “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and it’s also one of two movies on this set that can be purchased without buying the whole box set. Classic WB cartoon: “Beep Prepared.”

Pretty much everything I knew about “Gypsy” (1962) prior to watching this DVD I learned from Michael Jeter’s character in “The Fisher King,” so it was something of a treat to get in on a little slice of musical history of which I’d largely been ignorant. Based on the memoirs of famed stripper/burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee (whose real name was Louise Hovick), the movie tells of Louise’s upbringing via the ultimate stage mother, Rose (Rosalind Russell), and how she carts her daughters all over the country, playing vaudeville halls during the Great Depression. Rose concentrates on younger daughter June (Anne Jillian), while Louise is little more than backstage support. Eventually June runs away, at which point Rose unsuccessfully transfers her efforts to Louise. But Louise ultimately finds her calling in a profession her mother never saw coming. Wood is very good in “Gypsy,” but Russell owns this film. I once read that Tim Curry based his Dr. Frank N. Furter on Rosalind Russell, and if you see this movie you’ll no doubt believe that to be true. She tears through the film with a ferociousness that’s utterly transfixing. Supposedly Russell’s singing voice was dubbed, although you’d never guess it, since the vocals have the same deep, throaty sound she’s so well known for. It’s a fantastic performance all the way around, and while it may be heresy to claim that that I could take or leave many of the musical numbers, the story is just so damn good that at 2 hours and 23 minutes, the film almost feels likes it’s just getting started as it ends. Further, this is a gorgeous DVD and a beautiful transfer, and many may end up buying this set for this disc alone, as this is the only place you can get this remastered version. Classic WB cartoon: “The Pied Piper of Guadalupe.”

“Sex and the Single Girl” (1964) is clearly very loosely based on the book of the same name by Helen Gurley Brown, who would go on to become the editor-in-chief of “Cosmopolitan” for 32 years. As you might surmise, I’ve never read the book, nor do I intend to, but this movie is essentially just a screwball battle-of-the-sexes type comedy. It’s probably built around a few tips and ideas from the book, but is not an actual adaptation. Indeed, I would hazard a guess that Brown probably thought the movie was garbage, since Wood’s character, Dr. Helen Brown, is duped throughout the proceedings by tabloid writer Bob Weston (Tony Curtis). His mission? To find out if Brown is or isn’t a virgin – either way, “it’ll make for a great story.” But he predictably falls for her, and all manner of “Three’s Company” hijinks occur along the way. Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge Tony Curtis fan, so I’m not the best person to comment on the piece, as much of your enjoyment will depend on whether or not you appreciate his playboy antics. Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda co-star as Weston’s bickering neighbors, but the material is way beneath their talents, and it often feels like they’ve been flown in from a better movie. Speaking of flying, the script does just that -- by the seat of its pants -- and the whole thing ends with a painfully overlong car chase involving nearly every character in the film. (It’s almost as if Curtis and Wood can’t wait to get onto “The Great Race,” in which they’d both co-star the following year.) Still, Wood looks absolutely radiant throughout, and this is exactly the kind of airy fluff at which she excelled – the movie may not be very good, but she’s pretty good in it. There’s also an ongoing gag about Weston looking like Jack Lemmon that is pretty funny. This is the other movie on the set that can be purchased outside the box. Classic WB cartoon: “Nelly’s Folly.”

“Inside Daisy Clover” (1965) is the type of movie the phrase “noble failure” was coined to describe. Wood, at 27, is inexplicably cast as a precocious 15-year-old in the 1930s who shoots to fame as a singing silver screen idol under the manipulative hand of movie producer Raymond Swan (Christopher Plummer). Once Daisy becomes a star, she isn’t so sure it’s what she really wanted, and she proceeds to screw it up every step of the way. One of those missteps is a quickie marriage to a young – and gay! - Robert Redford. It’s supposed to be one of those cautionary tales about the pitfalls of Hollywood, and the entire affair seems as if should be more important than it actually is. Wood is either bored with the role or just plain wrong for it, which is a shame, because in the hands of the right kind of younger actress, the movie might have ended up a much different animal. Plummer, however, brings a fair amount of sleazy menace to the proceedings, and Redford is simply fun to watch for novelty sake. Ruth Gordon, as Daisy’s mother, was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar, although if you’ve already seen “Harold and Maude” or “Rosemary’s Baby,” the amount of screen time she logs here pales in comparison to those performances. Finally, there are the musical numbers (for which Wood’s voice was dubbed), which are quite lively and entertaining, and yet completely inappropriate for the era being portrayed. Instead of the ‘30s, they feel like they’re straight out of ’65. Despite all its flaws, the film is still quite the curiosity piece, and something of a standout in this set. Classic WB cartoon: “War and Pieces.”

Final thoughts: What this set really needed was “Rebel Without a Cause,” which is a WB movie, and its exclusion is somewhat mystifying. Either that or “Brainstorm,” Wood’s final film (which was re-released on DVD the same day as this set) would have been welcome inclusions. On the other hand, four of these films are making their DVD debut, and no doubt Wood’s legion of fans will be very happy to own them regardless of whether or not they’re stellar outings for the actress. It’s also interesting to note that half of these movies take place either right before or during the Depression. Make of that what you will.

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