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Supply and Demand: Four from the MGM Vaults

A collection of diverse curiosities from deep with the Manufactured on Demand vaults of MGM.

As we slowly move away from the days of digital reproduction, as Blu-ray betters DVD in the dying format race, those savvy studios, sensing the downturn, have come up with a clever way to satisfy the cinematic purist...and their bottom line. Welcome to the world of Manufactured on Demand, a service in which the major movie makers of today - Sony, Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal - scan their vast catalog of titles and sensing limited interest in same, make their more obscure wares available for a copied to DV-R fee. While not really meant to replace the standard sell-through product, this intriguing business model bets that there are enough people out there anxious for some of these Tinseltown rarities that they'll be willing to pay a price (usually around $19.99) to have them for their very own.

Every month, new selections are announced, with companies coming to the fore with interesting and often long forgotten favorites. Everything from old ABC Movies of the Week to classics considered OOP or without a viable commercial outlet are presented as part of a goodwill gesture, all under the guise of giving fans what they want. Granted, sometimes the pickings are very slim indeed. In other instances, lost classics can and are rediscovered. In the case of the four works from MGM discussed here - Tomorrow is Forever, Hong Kong Confidential, Master of the World, and The Incredible Melting Man - we have some intriguing entertainments and a couple of near misses. For the most part, however, we get a chance to see the other side of Hollywood, the forgotten past where not every release is respected and not every film demands a tricked out special edition. Let's begin with the wartime romance known as:

Tomorrow is Forever (dir. Irving Pichel, 1945)

As a young man, John Andrew MacDonald (Orson Welles) leaves his wife Elizabeth (Claudette Cobert) and heads off to fight in World War I. A few weeks later, she receives a telegram notifying her that he has been killed in action. Grief-stricken, she seeks solace with a friend named Larry (George Brent). Elizabeth eventually remarries and has a son named Drew (Richard Long). Then, one day, someone named Erik Kessler comes to work for Larry. Turns out, he is really Elizabeth's former spouse. He did not die in the war, but was severely scarred and is now outwardly different thanks to extension plastic surgery. The question becomes - will she find out about this mystery man, and what will it do to her life today?

At first glance, Tomorrow Is Forever has the feel of familiarity. Movies like The Return of Martin Guerre and its US remake, Sommersby have all played with the notion of the returning soldier seeking to prove who he is to friends and loved ones. In this case, Welles plays a man who is literally destroyed by his military service. When he comes back to America (after spending time in Austria), he has an entirely new face and an adopted ward (played by a very young Natalie Wood) in his charge. He really isn't interested in rekindling his romance with Elizabeth. He just wants to make sure she and her son Drew do the right thing this time. Yes, it's right before WWII and "Erik" has seen the new horrors of Hitler on the rise.

In essence, Tomorrow is Forever is a statement about the woman in mid-century America. During WWI they all lost fathers, brothers, and husbands. Now, with a new threat, it's happening all over again. Instead of standing firm and not giving in to the sense of duty, the movie makes it clear that all of the ladies in the United States need to stand tall while their latest loved one's lay down their lives for the country. Instead of moping around in soap opera manipulation, the narrative plays like an ad for bonds. While the acting is uniformly good (Colbert and Welles are excellent, with Brent and Long adding their own earnest turns) and the direction decent, the message is a bit mangled. Tomorrow may indeed be forever, but this film feels lost in the troubled era in which it was made.

Hong Kong Confidential (dir. Edward L Cahn, 1958)

Both the United States and "The Soviets" are looking to a small nation on the tip of the Suez Canal as a place to put their nuclear weapons. Hoping to sway the discussion, the Commies kidnap an Arab Prince and warn his Amir father that he must side with the Reds. The sheik contacts the CIA who put their best man, Casey Reed (Gene Barry) on the case. Traveling to the title local, he hooks up with various dive types while he hides under the disguise of a nightclub crooner. Of course, the closer he gets to discovering the truth, the more dangerous and diabolical things become.

Before he was Bat Masterson, Burke of Burke's Law, or The Name of the Game's Glen Howard, Gene Barry was a perfunctory leading man which studio suits didn't know what to do with. They would put him in comedies and romances and straight ahead dramas, yet few of these roles would click. It's no surprise then that as the spy thriller grew in prominence throughout the late '50s and early '60s, Barry would benefit from a bit of type casting. Seen as suave and sophisticated, he took the part of Casey Reed in this basic B picture. While not much different that other average espionage takes, the chance for Barry to bellow as the world's worst lounge singer is worth the price of admission alone. In fact, one has to wonder if the makers of Ishtar ever saw this film, since the notion of a bad nightclub act actually functioning as a front for some clunky cloak and dagger is in full force here.

While the Asian backdrops are definitely studio sets, and the attitude toward the East is less than enlightened, this is still an engaging, goofy romp. Even with a knotty voice over narrative that is obvious in its hard-boiled BS, we get a kick out of seeing the pre-Peace decade coming to the fore. The film is filled with all the various archetypes, including shifty eyes villains, foxy femme fatales, bumbling bosses, and dirty double crossers. Barry buoys all of this with an over the top performance so hammy it requires a mustard glaze. While not a forgotten classic by any fare stretch of the imagination, it is a fun flip through a myriad of movie cliches.

Master of the World (dir. William Witney, 1961)

Captain Robur (Vincent Price) invites a group of businessmen and their relatives, including an arms dealer named Mr. Prudent (Henry Hull), his daughter Dorothy (Mary Webster), her doting fiancé Phillip Evans (David Frankham) and a mystery individual named John Strock (Charles Bronson) on his Victorian airship, The Albatross. The ingenious inventor has a noble goal in mind - he wants to make the rest of the world stop fighting each other. He is trying to stop all wars. His methodology, however, is specious at best. You see, Robur believes in fighting fire with fire, on in his case, using bombs to destroy bombs. It is up to Strock, who turns out to be a government spy, to stop him before he goes too far.

Vincent Price is a old school Hollywood icon. Though best known for his genre work, he's the very epitome of a star. Even with his recognizable face and voice, he instills every role he plays with a certain swagger and sense of gravitas. This is especially true of this adaptation of Jules Verne's last two works - Master of the World and Rubor the Conqueror - a journeyman effort that definitely benefits from having Price in the picture. He is commanding and completely in charge as the rogue Captain and he plays off his costars with efficiency and effectiveness. Thanks to some interesting F/X work (this is only 1961, after all) and a tight script from ace Richard Matheson, what could be a dopey drop in the sci-fi fantasy bucket becomes a kind of small scale epiphany. We aren't overwhelmed by the film's greatness, but we are entranced at how good it actually is.

In some ways, this is more of a character study than a swirling epic. The budget give to the film by AIP means that corners needed to be cut and it was scope and spectacle where these edits occurs. While Robur's ship is something to behold, the hackneyed greenscreen sequences are especially off-putting. Equally antiquated are the attitudes toward gender. All the men are macho studs. All the women - or in this case, woman - are frightened little fawns. Still, as a sample of what passed for matinee fodder nearly 50 years ago, Master of the World has its moments. If you want to see classic Jules Verne, stick with something like Mysterious Island. This is a decent, if not necessarily definitive adventure.

The Incredible Melting Man (dir. William Sachs, 1977)

Steve West (Alex Rebar) is one of a trio of astronauts sent up into space. Bombarded by radiation that has traveled through the mysterious rings of Saturn, his capsule crash lands. He survives, only to become a flesh eating monster that needs human blood to keep from disintegrating. Escaping the military hospital where he is being held, it is up to Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning) and by the book officer General Michael Perry (Myron Healy) to keep Steve's murderous rampage hush-hush. Sadly, it gets harder and harder as more and more bodies pile up...and more and more pieces of this incredible melting man fall off.

Best known as a resume reel from recent Dick Smith graduate (and future Oscar favorite) Rick Baker, The Incredible Melting Man is a solid piece of '70s schlock. It has drive-in double feature written all over it. From the frequent flashbacks used to pad the experience to the always icky gore effects, this surreal showcase jumps genres so often it might as well be a cricket. Sometimes, it's a comedy (though unintentionally so). Sometimes, it's science fiction. Most of the time, it tries to be horror, but a lot of the time, it ends up being bad. It's a jaw-dropper, especially when director Williams Sachs (Galaxina) decides to spend 15 minutes following a severed head downstream. The work by Baker truly marks this movie. Everything else is like a limp afterthought.

Fans who only know this film via its appearance as part of Mystery Science Theater 3000 need to do themselves a favor and experience it sans riffing. It's really something magical - in a manic-depressive kind of way. If cinema can be bi-polar, The Incredible Melting Man is it. At any given moment, kids are taking up smoking and ribbing each other over the existence of Frankenstein while old ladies are getting frisky with their elderly beaus while stopping off at the side of the road to illegally pick citrus fruit. We are introduced to a rapist photographer who more or less gets away with his assault and, in the end, a group of security guards discover the perils of protecting a bunch of scaffolding. As with many firsts, Baker's beginning has a lot to legitimize it. But The Incredible Melting Man is also a joke - a nutty lark, but a lark just the same.


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