Movies Till Dawn: What You Could Be Watching This Weekend (Short, Sweet, Shrinking and Singing Edition)

The Incredible Shrinking Woman” (1981, Shout! Factory) Suburban housewife Lily Tomlin’s standing in her home is diminished, both emotionally and physically, after an overabundance of cleaning and beauty products causes her to shrink to microscopic size. Inspired by the novel “The Shrinking Man” by Richard Matheson and its 1957 film adaptation, this comedy, penned and co-produced by Tomlin’s longtime collaborator and partner, Jane Wagner, works best in its first half, with Tomlin suffering countless indignities because she can no longer measure up (quite literally) to societal obligations to her oblivious husband (Charles Grodin), whose company produced the products that caused her transformation, and rambunctious kids. The latter half, which teams Tomlin with a gorilla (played by special effects legend Rick Baker) to fend off scientists intent on using her altered chemistry to fuel a world domination plot, is less memorable, but as a vehicle for Tomlin, who plays four roles in the film, including Ernestine and Edith Ann (glimpsed in edited scenes), “Shrinking Woman” ultimately works by providing a showcase for her talent at finding the humanity in outlandish characters. The Shout Select Collector’s Edition Blu-ray includes a conversation with Tomlin and Wagner about the film, as well as interviews with director Joel Schumacher (“The Lost Boys”) and cinematographer Bruce Logan, who also supervised the impressive visual effects.

The Wheeler Dealers” (1963, Warner Archives Collection) Breezy comic confection in the vein of star James Garner‘s team-ups with Doris Day (“Move Over, Darling“), with Garner as a deal-hungry but benevolent Texas oilman and Lee Remick as a stock analyst tasked by her boss (Jim Backus, blustering with vigor) to dispose of worthless stock in a forgotten company. The task is a fool’s errand – Backus knows that it will end in Remick’s dismissal, which saves him the trouble of firing her because she’s his only female employee (an uncomfortably prescient moment) – but Garner takes up Remick’s case, ostensibly for the thrill of the financial risk, but more accurately, to win over her business-minded heart. The charm of the two leads overcomes the absurdities of Ira Wallach’s script (and the unfortunate, nagging refrain that Remick’s ambitions would be better employed in the secretarial pool), and they’re abetted by a platoon of fine character players, including Phil Harris and Chill Wills as Garner’s Greek chorus of fellow Texas investors and John Astin as a screwy fraud investigator; Warner Archives’ Blu-ray includes the original trailer.

Frankie and Johnny” (1966, Kino Lorber) Believing a fortune teller’s prediction that a red-haired woman will bring him luck, singing riverboat gambler Elvis Presley takes up with scarlet-tressed Nellie Bly (Nancy Kovack), which, as the venerable murder ballad that (loosely) inspired the film reminds us, will prompt his girlfriend, Frankie (Donna Douglas, “The Beverly Hillbillies”) to let some daylight through him with a .44. Innocuous Elvis vehicle has more production value than his other ’60s features – no Elvis waterskiing against a green-screen Florida a la “Clambake” here – and a game supporting cast that includes Harry Morgan (“M*A*S*H”) and Sue Ann Langdon, but no amount of polish can make up for stiff direction and scripting (by “Tonight Show” producer Fred De Cordova and Abbott & Costello scribe Alex Gottlieb, respectively), a mostly DOA soundtrack (excluding tracks by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, David Hess and Elvis’ take on the title number, which went to #25) and the unavoidable fact that Elvis looks bored by the whole thing. Probably best appreciated by Elvis diehards and those amused by the singer’s more awkward screen efforts; Kino’s widescreen Blu-ray features the original theatrical trailer.

Millionaires in Prison” (1940, Warner Archives Collection) Curious genre bouillabaisse from RKO opens on a note that may cheer many viewers, with five men of privilege convicted of various crimes and sentenced to jail. From there, the picture dovetails into two plotlines: one follows the comic antics of tax evaders Raymond Walburn and Thurston Hall, who cling desperately to their moneyed mindset, while the other pits unrepentant swindlers Morgan Conway (who went on to play Dick Tracy for RKO) and Chester Clute against top con Lee Tracy, who wants to appropriate the funds from their latest scheme to fund research by wrongly incarcerated doctor Truman Bradley. Director Ray (brother of Leo) McCarey does his best to direct the traffic flow between the two stories, pave over some eyebrow-raising elements – like Bradley recruiting test subjects for his vaccine from the prison population (ahem) – and still find room for secondary shenanigans by future Stooge Shemp Howard (!). Such a disparate array of plots and characters might come across as disjointed in a more substantial picture, but the separate storylines should be entertaining (or ridiculous) enough to hold vintage film fans’ interest for its brief, 64-minute running time.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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