Earlier this year, rumours started to go round Mostly Film HQ that The Criterion Collection would be launching in the UK. The label has released over 800 classic films on DVD and Blu-ray in the US. Six of those 800 make up their UK launch today…
It’s our job to let you know how wisely Criterion have chosen. Six of our writers are going to look at each launch title in turn. Here are your first two reviews:
Indy Datta on Grey Gardens
The Maysles brothers’ landmark 1975 documentary was a good choice for the public screening to mark the UK launch of the Criterion collection (hosted by Little White Lies magazine, and featuring a post-film Q&A from Criterion CEO Jonathan Turell), showcasing as it did the value of the well-curated home video repertoire in keeping films in the consciousness of film-goers, the symbiotic cross-fertilisation of each form of cinephilia by the other. Watching the film for the first time with an audience was a potent communal experience (defined less by the expected notes of decay and regret, and more by the Bouvier Beale women’s inextinguishable allure and charisma, now available to you in a luxury home furnishings line!) , but a few minutes’ cursory online research made it clear that the film’s history and aftermath would also make the Bluray a worthwhile purchase for the background provided by Criterion’s extensive extras, including a whole other film made from the out-takes.
While we have our own labels doing excellent work in this space (Eureka, Arrow and Second Run, among others), it’s hard for a film geek not to welcome Criterion’s entry into the UK market, particularly for a film geek who already had an expensive import disc/hacked Blu-ray player habit. Could the launch line-up have been a bit more adventurous, featuring, for example, some non English-language cinema? Sure, and I would love to see UK Criterion editions in the future of some of their wide range of Asian titles. But everything in that launch line-up is on my shopping list now, except the Polanski Macbeth because who has the time, Keith Chegwin or no Keith Chegwin?
Fiona Pleasance on It Happened One Night
If you’re going to carry a particularly well-known cult distribution label from one territory to another, it makes sense to have items of pedigree and class on your first release slate. It Happened One Night has pedigree and class in spades, so it’s hardly surprising to see it among the first films which Criterion are choosing to release in the UK.
It Happened One Night‘s place in film history is assured by the simple fact that it was the first movie to win all of the Big Five Academy Awards – Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay – in 1934. (Only two more films have achieved this since, fact fans: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs). If that isn’t enough, add an iconic leading man at the height of his powers (Clark Gable), and one of the select group of directors whose name has become an adjective (Frank Capra).
Even though it’s over eighty years old, It Happened One Night holds up remarkably well, still fresh, funny, and occasionally surprising. It was released in that rather unusual period known as the ‘Pre-Code Era’ of classic Hollywood. The name is a slight misnomer; the Production Code (also known as the Hays Code), which listed what could and could not be depicted in movies, actually had been adopted by the studios in 1930. However, they saw no reason to follow it particularly strictly in all of their films at first. Sex and violence sold then as well as they do now.
Thus, some of the movies released in the Pre-Code years can be unexpectedly bold, particularly when compared to what came after. While in some respects, It Happened One Night is conventionally conservative for the period – a major plot point is the blanket barrier, aka “The Walls of Jericho”, which separates the beds of the two leads, single man Peter and a nominally otherwise-married woman Ellen, in their motel room at night – it does dance around the Code boundaries somewhat, and isn’t above using sex to get what it wants, as in the famous hitch-hiking scene. Capra prioritises romantic comedy genre conventions over censorship considerations as it suits him.
Actually, to refer to It Happened One Night just as a romantic comedy would be to limit it. The film is also a road movie and is often cited as one of the first screwball comedies. In that too, it is a classic. There is an eccentric female lead (Claudette Colbert) who is socially and economically advantaged over the honest-joe male (Gable); their prickly relationship is expressed in smart-aleckiness and wise-cracks, all typical characteristics of screwball. The movie even places the couple’s antagonistic relationship above the conventional happy ending. Love seems to make both of them grumpy more than anything else, and the last time we see Ellen and Peter face to face, each doesn’t know the other reciprocates their feelings, and they part on a sour note. All their subsequent encounters – elopement, marriage and all the rest – happen off screen, but it’s so sweetly done that it’s easily forgiven.
My one quibble with the movie lies in the title. It Happened One Night is a fib, it actually takes four. But that’s fine. It means we get to spend more time travelling north through 1930s America in such fine company.
The other Criterion UK launch titles are Speedy, Tootsie, Macbeth and Only Angels Have Wings. We’ll review them all, including Macbeth, despite what Indy says.