Warner Archive has issued two new Blu-rays of ‘70s fantasies that occasion very different memories in your nostalgic reviewer.
By now, Dear Reader, you must have learned one of the rules: Avoid most movies you loved as a kid. What struck my squeaky post-toddler self as cinematic masterworks, like Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), look dull and pale today.
This is why I’ve never revisited Disney’s Million Dollar Duck (1971), the first ever first-run film I saw in a theatre. It had a fowl who laid golden eggs! It had Dean Jones and Joe Flynn! It had a big chase with Sandy Duncan driving a cherry-picker! She frantically manipulated the gear-shift and wailed “Oh, how do you work this darn thing?” as it sped toward an overpass! I bounced in my seat! My parents and I screamed with laughter! It was a movie! In my memory, the eggs aren’t the only thing golden, and I don’t wish to discover now if it’s not all it’s quacked up to be.
I see that I liked big, broad, simple movies with clear images and straight stories. Movies like George Pal’s Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze (1975), with its rousing chorus singing to a John Phillip Sousa march while Ron Ely spent the whole movie posing, smiling, and shredding his shirts. Here’s Doc Savage at his pre-Superman Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic Circle. Here’s his flashy New York penthouse and his big car. Here are his bland cohorts, the Fabulous Five, including the chubby one with a pet pig as comic relief. Here they are discovering a lost South American tribe with a pool of molten gold and green cartoon snakes who slither through the air.
My youthful eyes were just faintly sophisticated enough to pick up on the Batman-esque “campy” qualities, like the gimmicky gleam in Ely’s eyes. I loved the way the trailer’s announcer said “When you’re all doomed to die a horrible death” right before the native chief intones “We are all doomed to die a horrible death”. It was a clean vision of comic adventure, with the right dash of absurdity. Now, alas, it feels like clumsy plod that’s shot like a contemporary TV pilot movie, and on the same backlots. There’s little of the visual pizzazz injected by Pal in his better movies, like The Time Machine (1960) and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964) — more movies best seen in childhood.
Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time (1979)
Someone who learned from The Time Machine was writer-director Nicholas Meyer, whose Time After Time has worn so much better thanks to its charming process effects, its rousing Miklos Rosza score, its clever romantic script, and its endearing performances. Meyer had written The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) and would go on to direct two Star Trek movies. His hit debut as a director, which links Victorian pastiche with science fiction, proved crucial in his career.
Although Malcolm McDowell’s portrayal of H.G. Wells isn’t very accurate, he’s presented as a Fabian socialist and exponent of Free Love, which is probably a first for any Hollywood hero. That’s why he’s so charmingly befuddled by a modern, sexually liberated woman (Mary Steenburgen) after his funky little time machine drops him into ‘70s San Francisco in pursuit of Jack the Ripper (David Warner).
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The slasher story doesn’t dominate but lends urgency to what’s mostly a fish-out-of-water romance played by two leads who fell in love during filming (McDowell and Steenburgen would be married for 10 years.) One can question various conveniences, but the script balances its elements with care, keeping the viewer engaged and, when necessary, lulled and misdirected.
In the articulate commentary by Meyer and McDowell, the former says he should have done this and he might have done that, but his simple approach worked, which is why the film’s popularity remains. Indeed, a TV series is in production for 2017, which is another explanation for this Blu-ray upgrade.