Jean Renoir in America, Part 1

March 25, 2012 | By

J'approve le Ray-de-Bleu, mes petites mignons cineastes!

As the basic details go, esteemed French director Jean Renoir hopped over to Italy to make the film Tosca when his latest, Rules of the Game (1939) was met with distate by critics and the establishment. Then Mussolini sided with Hitler, and Renoir decided to abandon his stake in Tosca (a film eventually completed by  Carl Koch, and released in 1941) and return to France, only to flee to American when the Nazis invaded his homeland.

Renoir would eventually return to more personal fare in 1951 (some filmed in English, most in French), and his American films (1941-1947) are more interesting for the way in which Renoir’s own themes and interests transcended straight Hollywood genres, insofar as the studios under which he was contracted tried to render his films more palatable to average audiences.

Renoir purists may regard his U.S. period as less than stellar, but I think time’s been rather kind to most of his works – each somewhat compromised, but still quite distinct from the generic southern dramas, anti-Nazi thrillers, and melodramas in production during that period.

In addition to a review of Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray release of Renoir’s first American film, Swamp Water [M] (1941), I’ve added reviews of Fox’s 1952 colour remake, Lure of the Wilderness [M], directed by Jean Negulesco.

Staying within the theme of Renoir’s unofficial ‘land’ films, I’ve also added reviews of his above-average anti-Nazi propaganda drama This land is Mind [M] (1943), available (where else?) in Spain as a Region 2 DVD; and The Southerner [M] (1945), from VCI.

In Part 2, I’ll take a look at Renoir’s remaining American feature films: Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), and The Woman on the Beach (1947), a film fraught with so much studio retooling that it’s unsurprising Renoir took a few years to find his mojo before making the technicolor classic The River (1951).

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Two quick news bits:

Both DVD Savant (see March 17 post) and the Digital Bits (see March 22) have mentioned Screen Archives Entertainment’s recent announcement of distributing Zorba the Greek (1964) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) on Blu-ray – titles currently available on DVD as part of Fox’s old classic film series.

SAE will have exclusve distribution of these titles until June 5th, when they go “national” and are available at regular retail outlets. While Fox distributes MGM/UA’s classic catalogue titles on Blu-ray, both Zorba and Grapes shouldn’t be regarded as a sign the studio’s starting to release their own classics on Blu after a long dead period.

Call it a test, in terms of seeing how big the classic film fan base is today, and whether it’s large enough to warrant the select release of catalogue films via a staggard release schedule.

It’ll be interesting to see if Fox is planning to test more titles on Blu – I’d be giddy over Captain from Castile (1947) and Leave Her to Heaven [M] (1945) in HD – and whether the strategy proves to be more successful than locking niche titles under exclusive deals with major chains whose clientele is too general for what are increasingly being rebranded as specialty titles, given the real push is on current & ongoing franchises like Harry Potter, 007, Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean; and lumping blockbuster titles in multi-format boxed sets (BD + BD 3D + DVD + Digital Copy + Turquoise Fandango Disc + Hyper-Density floppy disks + colour-themed cat food tin).

That said, the Digital Bits also reports Fox’s release of The Poseidon Adventure (1972) will be given an exclusive release, via Walmart. Perhaps the best way to read the Fox-cultivated tea leaves is that post-1970 titles are more recent than 1940 titles, hence they warrant distribution through a broader based merchant. I guess as long as people know who’s got what when and where, they know where to go, but I suspect there will be some interesting surprises in the fall. There’s no way Fox can sit on their substantive CinemaScope catalogue.

Lastly, Blu-ray.com reported Gaumont has gathered funding for 2K transfers of 270 (!) classic French titles, including Jean Renoir’s Toni (1935), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (1942), and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

I recommend reading the news brief and more specifically the reader’s comments, where a lengthy post addresses the sticky issue of “moral rights” under French law. If such an equivalent ever existed in the U.S., one can imagine the paucity of classic films that would never see the light of day. The way it seems to read, if a family member from, say, Orson Welles’ clan feels something’s not right, a film could remain unavailable until the affected party is in a state of bliss.

Not that anything of the kind has ever happened.

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Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com ( Main Site / Mobile Site )

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Category: EDITOR'S BLOG, FILM REVIEWS

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