This week the Criterion collection brings two new movies to their library, one of which is a wonderful pre-code movie that’s been pretty rare to see until now, the other is one of the most iconic films of the 1980s. Both are movies directed by women. First, there’s Amy Heckerling’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” from 1982, then Dorothy Arzner—the only woman to work as a director in 1930’s Hollywood gives us “Merrily we go to Hell” from 1932.
“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” has long been considered one of the best of the 1980s wave of Teen Comedies that hit. It was the first movie written by Cameron Crowe, who based it upon a book he wrote where he went undercover as a high school student to report on the then-modern teenager experience. Watching the new Criterion edition, which was approved by Heckerling, was the first time I had seen the film in close to twenty years since I was a teenager myself. Not only does “Fast Times” hold up tremendously well, it inadvertently does double duty as a sort of social document of what life, particularly teenage life, was like in the 1980s.
The movie follows a group of teenagers at Ridgemont High, a cast of then unknowns which all went on to stardom and even a few Oscars. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Phoebe Cates, Judge Reinhold, Forrest Whitaker, Anthony Edwards, and of course Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli. The film focuses on the way these kids are having to become adults at a rapid pace as they deal with jobs, dates, romance, and hard teachers. In the hands of any other director, I don’t think “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” would be the landmark movie it is today. Amy Heckerling brought an understanding and eye to the material that I don’t think would have been as understanding if anyone else directed the film, especially a man.
Criterion’s blu-ray of “Fast Times” comes from a new 4K of the film sourced from the original camera negative. This transfer was supervised by Amy Heckerling, which also restored a shot missing from the film she always wanted to be included but was cut due to studio pressure. As such, the movie looks great, and as she always intended. Colors are vivid, and those opening shots of the mall are very “time machine” feeling for those of us who remember Mall culture being what it was. The movie has a 5.1 surround mix that was created by Universal in 1999 for the DVD release, this has been cleaned up and boosted a bit by Criterion.
Bonus materials include the 1999 commentary track with Heckerling and screenwriter Crowe, the TV version of the film in HD, which has some deleted and alternate scenes, and a new conversation between Crower, Heckerling, and Olivia Wilde. Also ported over from the 1999 DVD is a documentary about the making of the film. The booklet includes a new introduction to the film by Crowe and an essay by critic Dana Stevens. All in all, it’s a highly recommended edition of one of the best movies of the 1980s.
When we talk about the pre-code era of American filmmaking, it’s referring to the period before the strict enforcement of the production code which was to self-police movies from being too “stimulating” and “immoral.” Movies of the pre-code era, mostly the early 1930s, fly in the face of the notion that old Hollywood wasn’t “dirty” or somehow more “Puritan” than these “awful movies of today” are. Even by those standards “Merrily we go to Hell” is a heck of a film. I mean, there’s that title to begin with, which some newspapers refused to print when it was first released.
Starring Fredric March (arguably one of the finest actors to ever appear on film) and Sylvia Sidney, “Merrily” is a frank, mature and critical look at marriage and the hypocrisy of the society set. The film features depictions of alcoholism and open marriage that wouldn’t have been seen in movies again for decades. March plays a writer who falls in love with a rich society lady played by Sidney. They’re an urbane couple and he longs to become a play writer and her father fears he’s only after her for her money, thanks to a joke article written up in the paper March writes for.
But as March gets closer and closer to his play opening, his alcoholism becomes worse. He goes from being off the booze to jumping right back on and being absolutely sloshed the opening night of his play, with a wandering eye focused on the play’s leading lady. This causes a breaking point in the marriage which then turns it into a more experimental relationship. The movie is really something, both in the fact that it’s a great film, and also one of the boldest examples of pre-code filming I can think of. Be sure to keep your eye out for a very early in his career Cary Grant who appears in the film.
This new 4K digital restoration of the film was sourced from a 35m composite duplicate negative. It looks fantastic! Rich and sharp, with that beautiful shimmery black and white that films of the shot on nitrate era tended to have. Having not seen the film before, I can’t speak to how earlier editions may have looked, but it’s safe to say this is perhaps the best the movie had looked since 1932. Bonus material includes a 1983 documentary on director Arzner and a video essay by historian Cari Beauchamp. In this new edition, this amazing piece of pre-code filmmaking is a must-own. Criterion has done a great job bringing this long hard to find film back into print.
Both of these films are a great addition to have on blu-ray, and though it’s not the first time “Fast Times at Ridgemont” high has been out on the format, it is the best edition to date thanks to the involvement of its director. I hope you’ll find time to add these movies to your collection, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Both come highly recommended. See you next week.