Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenk. Her parents were born in Russia. Obviosly a name change was in order for her to pursue an acting career, particularly when said career was in the era of The Red Scare and Hollywood was blacklisting some of its most talented products for even a hint of Comunism. That career was to start when Natalie was just 4 years old. But it wasn’t until 1947’s Christmas Classic, Miracle On 34th Street that she won over the hearts of a nation as Susan Walker. She was married to television and film star Robert Wagner, not once but twice. She was out on a yacht with her husband and Christopher Walken when she fell and drowned in the open ocean. The year was 1981, and at just 43 the young actress was gone. An odd coincidence involving the tragedy was that Wood had a severe fear of drowning. It has been rumored that she had to be tricked into appearing in a reservoir scene for Splendor In The Grass. Her death has also provided one of those Hollywood mysteries about what exactly happened on that yacht. The tabloid speculations were bad enough to inspire Don Henley’s song, Dirty Laundry.
Warner Brothers has collected a selection of her films for this Natalie Wood Collection. While 2 of the films are already available on DVD, the good news is that 4 of the 6 films have not been previously available. To date they are still not available outside of this collection. The 4 new titles are: Bombers B-52, Inside Daisy Clover, a restored version of Gypsy, and Cash McCall.
Here’s a breakdown of the films in the collection:
This Korean War film also stared The Streets Of San Francisco’s Karl Malden as a Sgt. Chuck Brennan. Brennan has an incident as the film opens with new top gun pilot Captain Herlify (Zimbalist, Jr.). The Captain’s insistence that hanger doors be left open to repair a damaged craft provides a target to the enemy that is quickly taken advantage of, killing a man in the attack. Six years later at an Air Force base back in the States, and now the arrogant Herlify is again his commanding officer. It doesn’t help that Herlify might also have the hots for his young daughter, Lois (Wood). Fortunately Lois isn’t really hot for the newly promoted Colonel. She’d rather her dad follow in the footsteps of many of his comrades in arms, and take a better paying civilian job.
Believe it or not, Natalie Wood isn’t the main scenery for the film. She has a rather unflattering role in that she doesn’t seem to like anybody. She’s pretty brutal on her dad, and she’s not too soft on those who might want to court her. She’s not even around for the scenery here, as this is a picture about pilots and planes. You’ll see more than one influence that extended to Tom Cruise’s Top Gun film here. Mostly it’s a melodramatic mess that never gives Wood a chance to shine.
This is one of the better films in the collection. Unfortunately not so much for the presence of Wood. James Garner really steals the film. He plays Cash McCall. He’s a kind of business fix-it man. He buys companies, fixes them up and sells them at considerable profit. His usual M.O. is to buy and gut a company, which doesn’t give him a very flattering reputation with the work force. This time, it’s different. He’s got his eye on a plastics firm, and once he has it he decides to make this company his ticket to bigger things. Before long he’s got one heck of a conglomerate on his hands. Natalie Wood enters the picture as the daughter of the man Cash buys out. Apparently they had a hot and heavy thing going once.
The film burdens itself far too much in a complicated puzzle of who owns what. Characters are discovering this employee actually works for that company. It gets hard to follow, and I’m not sure I ever did understand it all. The truth is that a lot of it can be attributed to red herrings to make a relatively short and simple story play out for a longer running time. Of course one can’t miss the future James Rockford personality, as Cash has several schemes going and you can bet someone’s going to get double crossed. In the end it does have the feel of a made for television film, but it makes up for the complicated plot with a great performance by James Garner.
Splendor In The Grass:
There’s little doubt that this is the A title in the collection. It might not be the best film here, but it is certainly the best known. It was and still remains a signature role for Natalie Wood. Wood plays the vulnerable teen Deanie Loomis, who can’t shake her feelings for big jock on campus Bud Stamper, Warren Beatty in his break-out role. It’s a very blunt film sexually. Both teens are experiencing those hormonal drives, but exist in a 1920’s morality that strictly prohibits any physical contact. Pat Hingle plays Bud’s father, who is a well known oil man in the town. He has a reputation to uphold. He’s got bigger things in mind for Bud than having him saddled with a wife and kids at an early age. He’ll do anything he has to to keep them apart.
Elia Kazan was able to bring Wood and Beatty out of their shells, and both credit his direction for the future success they enjoyed. This was a film wrought with controversy. Subjects like teen sex, incest, and abortion weren’t very acceptable subject matters in the 1920’s when the film is set, and weren’t any more acceptable in 1961 when the film was made. Kazan doesn’t pull any punches either. He films the teen in tight locations where you can see the perspiration building along with the teens’ frustrations. It’s considered a coming of age film, and it certainly was for the two leads. It’s a bit too hot and steamy for my tastes. Of course before this I’ve only seen it on television. When the film was being released, I was busy being born.
It’s the film of the Broadway show about the famed Gypsy Rose Lee. Natalie Wood doesn’t take on the role of Gypsy Rose, rather her sister. Wood actually steals quite a few scenes, particularly her famous scene where she finally asserts herself. This was quite hard to do with such a larger than life character as the lead in the story. Gypsy Rose is played somewhat over the top by Rosalind Russell. She ended up taking the role from the fabulous Ethel Merman because of film rights issues. To be fair, she was never going to replace such an iconic performance, and it was stupid of her to muscle herself into trying. This film is less about the stripper days of the titular character and more about the declining years of the vaudeville acts. The music is from Stephen Sondheim, who also brought us that Demon Barber Of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd. The thing has an over the top showy aspect that I’m sure worked fine on the Broadway stage but feels too staged on the big screen. Finally, rumor has it that Wood learned how to do her stripping scene from the real Gypsy Rose Lee.
Sex And The Single Girl:
Another of the better known Natalie Wood films, she plays a writer, Helen Gurley Brown, known for publishing a sex guide book. When Stop magazine editor Bob Weston (Curtis) publishes an article that slanders Brown, she fights back. The article calls her virginity into question, making her lose face not only with the book’s fans, but with her fellow psychologists. Her work begins to get questioned at every turn. Now Weston wants to interview the controversial writer. He pretends to be her next door neighbor, played for laughs by Henry Fonda. It seems Fonda’s character is having his own marital problems in the bedroom, so he allows Weston to use him for his scheme. Fonda’s wife is played by Lauren Bacall. The entire complicated affair leads predictably to Weston falling in love with his prey, Brown.
The problem I always have had with this film is it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It casts some rather good serious actors in Curtis, Fonda, and Bacall, but much of it is quite farcical. The circumstances are completely unlikely, and it’s hard to finally believe any romantic entanglement between the two main characters. You see glimpses of Mel Brooks and Woody Allen throughout, but it never finds its voice. This was, nonetheless, a very visible role for Wood, and she certainly made the best of it.
Inside Daisy Clover:
Ruth Gordon plays a role she’s made a late life career out of playing. She’s a crazy, eccentric old lady. Her daughter, Daisy (Wood) is a bit of a tomboy. She’s a rebellious child, breaking just about every rule she can find. She becomes a child actor and begins to live the life of limo rides and suitors. A supporting cast that includes Christopher Plummer, Robert Redford, and Katharine Bard make this a far more interesting film than it actually would be. There are some awkward musical numbers. At times the film attempts to be a little female version of Oliver Twist, with the rich couple studio exec playing the part of the new family to take her away from the downtrodden life. Except here Wood is both Oliver and the Artful Dodger rolled into one.
All of the films are presented in their original widescreen aspect ratios. Films like Splendor and Sex look the best, likely owing to the time and money spent for previous releases. For the most part colors are good, and the studio used relatively clean prints. The films are mostly alone on the discs, so you won’t find any compression artifact to distract from the prints.
All except for Gypsy are presented in Dolby Digital mono. Gypsy is in Dolby Digital 2.0, which helps to bring out the musical numbers considerably. The films are mostly dialog driven, so that’s really all that is serviced here.
Some of the discs come with era cartoons. These are old Warner Brothers classics released the year of the film:
Boyhood Daze, High Note, Beep Prepared, The Pied Piper, Nelly’s Folly, War And Pieces.
Gypsy Restored Musical Numbers: With Gypsy you get 2 restored musical selections: You’ll Never Get Away From Me and Together Wherever We Go.
Trailers for each of the films
Fans of Natalie Wood will appreciate the rarer pickings here and likely will cherish the set. It’s not the strongest collection of films, however, for the non fan. Most of it features complex and convoluted romantic and sexual escapades that I find boring in modern films. These older movies simply don’t fly for me. It’s clearly a love letter to the actress’s fans that we have here. Her films were quite frank and a bit risque for their times. “What a mouth on that girl.”