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Tuesday Foreign Region Blu-ray Disc Report: "Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (Frank Tashlin, 1957)

Do you remember the old Peanuts strips in which Linus would skitter about in anxiety, complaining to Lucy that he'd suddenly become "aware of [his] tongue?" And that he was in agony because once the awareness had come upon him, he was unable to let it go, or, worse, to think of anything else? And how enraged Lucy became—"You blockhead!"—once Linus's ravings resulted in she herself becoming aware of her own tongue? That was pretty funny stuff, no? Funny because it was true. I bring it up because now that I am aware of the more-or-less exact nature of the cyan record in three-strip Technicolor (cyan being the complementary color to red, which thus in the complicated process controls red), I see its result in all the Technicolor material in which its characteristic reveals itself, and cannot not see it.

This was something I first really heard about in some detail from the film restorer Robert A. Harris, when I contacted him while trying to get to the bottom of something odd: a little pink shimmer that sometimes showed up around the otherwise pristine whites of certain nun's habits in the Blu-ray disc from Criterion of Powell and Pressburger's great Black Narcissus. The full results of my research can be seen here: Harris speculated as to the source of the artifact by pointing out a factor built in, as it were, to the Technicolor process itself:

"Keep in mind that three-strip Technicolor was not three fully 'direct-to-emulsion' differing exposures, but rather two, with the third exposure, what's called the cyan record (which controls red), being exposed through the base of another record—and ALWAYS SLIGHTLY OUT OF FOCUS!"

The results of this are not even nearly as obvious than a Technicolor picture that's out of registration, which can look like a 3D movie does before you put the glasses on. But what the very sharp eye—the eye that's looking for it, or, more to the point here, the eye that can't not look for it will see is a very slight shimmer around the outline of a neutral object when that neutral object is photographed in front of a similarly neutral object. A slight blue telephone and an off-white wall, for instance, as in just one office scene in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? Happy to note, then, that Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? was directed by Frank Tashlin and photographed by Joe MacDonald; the former didn't like "subtle" color schemes one bit, I infer from all the available evidence (including the red telephone being hoisted above by Henry Jones; and please note that all the screen captures here are actually photographs taken off my plasma display, and not proper representations ripped from the disc), and the latter did immaculate work in nailing any color you like. And for all that I did see that shimmer every now and again on the new Blu-ray of Rock Hunter from the incredible visionaries of Eureka!/Masters of Cinema. And didn't mind it one bit. It reminded me of what Technicolor was.

As it happens, the shimmer can be "fixed" in the digital domain. Harris: "If one is compositing the records digitally, the cyan (red information) can be slightly sharpened, re-sized, etc., toward a better fit." The MOC guys are extremely conscientious about applying such fixes though, and I'm presuming that the restoration going on here was not digital, and the whole and final point is that this is a wonderful film to see on Blu-ray, it looks absolutely spectacular: sharp, solid colors, very "filmic," real eye candy and real intellectually engaging and clever eye-candy at that.

If you haven't seen the film, well, first off, I'm confused; what are you doing at this site? (This is an exaggeration, but then again...well...) The 1957 picture teams Tashlin with flesh-and-blood Tex Avery cartoon bombshell Jayne Mansfield for the second time, following up the immortal rock and roll musical The Girl Can't Help it. Here the satirical target is television (in Girl it was the record industry and pop culture in general, although it provided many extremely respectful and engaging records of the featured musical artists, from the Treniers to Eddie Cochran to Abbey Lincoln). It's kind of funny watching the film's iris-in gags mocking the tinyness of '50s sets on a big-screen plasma display; might've made Tashlin's head spin to see it.

But beyond television, the film lampoons—rather mordantly, in the perspective offered up by Daily Notebook contributor David Cairns' wonderful essay (one of three in the supps by Cairns, actually) on the film included in the splendid booklet this disc comes with—mass-media manipulation itself, a particularly piquant topic In These Times. Thank God it does so in such a mostly funny way. I myself always cringe at the line about Brooks Brothers representing mediocrity—I rather like what BB threads I own. But this picture really doesn't take any prisoners, as rollicking and hilarious a romp as it is. I've seen it about 300 times, myself, and I always love it, and I always find something new to look at, and here it was Henry Jones' performance as ad agency climber and flunky Henry Rufus, a shameless opportunist and sot whose highest flights of elation are exactly as pathetic as his lowest lows contemplating getting canned. A performance of frequently disturbing intensities.

Other extras include a frank and enlightening video introduction by Joe Dante and a fun promo film featuring Mansfield. The disc is Region B locked, and so only playable on European or region-free machines. I'm so blown away by MOC's commitment to putting out fare of this sort on Blu-ray and can't wait to get to their high-def disc of Make Way For Tomorrow. Now if they could get around to Girl Can't Help it itself, I'd never ask for anything else of this life again...

CORRECTION: In a rather staggering example of not seeing the forest for the trees, the author of the piece formulated his theory ("it reminded me of what Technicolor was," good God...) and did a large amount of spadework, including a good hour spent poring over Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing, by Richard W. Haines, without actually verifying whether Rock Hunter was in Technicolor, which, as it happens, it is not. Like most 20th Century Fox productions of the 1950s and on, it was shot in the not-three-strip Deluxe process, which Fox kept in-house around the time it was also rolling out Cinemascope. The slight color anomalies, therefore, have nothing to do with a cyan record. The disc remains a gorgeous wonder, as does the film; the author regrets contributing to the store of misinformation about the picture (he is not the first person to erroneously categorize it as a Technicolor film, although that's no excuse) but leaves the current post above untouched as a testament to the disaster a little sloppiness can result in, and also how overtiredness can lead to the mind playing tricks on one, like the Geto Boys said. Is that how to spell "Geto Boys?" Oh, bother...

I’m glad I’ve seen “Bachelor Flat” and “The Lieutenant wore Skirts” theatrically, but wish they’d get some DVD love as well.
Thanks, Glenn! On watching the BluRay I was struck by how, when Tony Randall has a hangover, Henry Jones turns his Henry Jones-ish-ness up to 11, giving us the exact impression of Henry Jones viewed through a hangover. Actually, the whole movie is hangover bright and intense…

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