Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation: The Limited Edition Series [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Twilight Time
Review written by and copyright: Ethan Stevenson (2nd May 2014).
The Film

“Do you know what this country needs? An un-Edison. An un-Thomas A. Edison. He can un-invent things. You know the first thing I'd have him uninvent? Television.”

Henry Koster’s “Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation” was the first in a series of family-oriented comedies the director would make in the 1960's with one of the immutable leading men of Old Hollywood, the easily imitable Jimmy Stewart. Although entirely unintentional at the time of their creation, these films would be some of the last for their director, screenwriter, and even cinematographer, who had all worked consistently throughout the better part of early movie history—at least since the invention of sync-sound-on-film—but would ultimately wind down output with a few more, middling-to-masterful efforts before retirement. In a way, “Hobbs” can be taken as a minor milestone, not as a big budget epic or notable award winner or box office earner—although it was a summer movie—but a marker, signalling the impending end of an era and an industry in transition.

At the time Stewart re-teamed with Koster on “Hobbs” and their two other similar family films churned out quickly in its wake (“Take Her, She’s Mine” (1963) and “Dear Brigitte” (1965))—they'd previously made the wonderful “Harvey” (1950) and proto-disaster-pic “No Highway in the Sky” (1951) together—the actor’s career was in a noticeable downturn, perhaps the steepest in his 30 year history within the studio system; a system that was itself on the verge, in a dangerous downward spiral tumbling towards total collapse. “Hobbs” was released right when the studios were hurting the worst. The Paramount Decision, a result of the landmark antitrust court case United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc., by which the Supreme Court stripped the majors of their exhibition arms, was the first blow at the tail end of the 1940's to the long standing studio system; the changing power dynamics, in which agents and stars wielded sway for the first time, was another, upsetting much of the 1950's. But, by the 1960's, it was the dwindling audience numbers that worried the industry most of all.

People were staying in, not going out to see movies like before. Why? At least one reason was television. There were about 6 million sets in US homes in 1950; that number exploded to almost 60 million by 1960. Quality likewise burst onto the airwaves in that same span of time. Anyone with a TV could get something near as good as what was at the movies in their own home, and better yet, it was free—one-time cost of the console and set aside, of course. Most of the popular programming in television's first Golden Age catered to families, with down-home wholesomeness, and were situation comedies in a domestic setting. The real-life Nelson clan on “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” (1952-1966), the Cleavers on “Leave It To Beaver” (1957-1963), Fred MacMurray and his boyish brood on “My Three Sons” (1960-1972), the eponymous “The Andy Griffith Show” (1960-1968) among many others set the tone for mainstream entertainment of the time period. And the movies, begrudgingly and awkwardly, followed suit… for a year short years. Up and coming television influenced the career trajectories of several major Hollywood players who weren’t even working on shows shown on that little black-and-white screen; not yet anyway, although many—including Jimmy Stewart—eventually found themselves in TV series to some success.

The loose, episodic structure and even salient plot points of “Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation” echo the family-focused sitcoms on the tube at the time, which the film was ostensibly competing against. The film could effortlessly be split into individual episodes, and as easily aired in a weekly series, with imaginary episode titles like “Mr. Hobbs Goes Boating”, “The Trouble with Mr. Hobbs’ Daughters” and “Mr. Hobbs Meets the Boss” appearing before each vignette. It’s not a great film, but it’s enjoyable on its own terms, as light—and now slightly quaint—entertainment. Although very much a sitcom, albeit in CinemaScope, the film is amusing and at times unexpectedly acerbic. Jimmy Stewart is a large part of why the film works; I don’t think he ever gave a bad performance, and he certainly doesn’t here. Stewart rose to prominence playing the quintessential everyman, the moral middle class hero of Hollywood’s Golden Age, first in his drama-comedic collaborations with Frank Capra and then—after World War II, in which he served as a pilot in the Army Air Force—successfully sidestepped a few bombs (the holiday classic “It’s A Wonderfully Life” (1946) included, which was not a success upon release and bankrupted Capra’s Liberty Films). In the 1950's, the actor tactfully transitioned into more mature fare, doing some of the best work in his illustrious career, appearing in several westerns directed by Anthony Mann and, of course, the suspenseful thrillers of one Alfred Hitchcock. At decades end, Stewart earned his fifth and final Oscar nomination for his work in Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of A Murder” (1959), where, as a semi-retired attorney, he'd already started to act his advancing age. One of many minor pleasures of "Mr. Hobbs" are the handful of nods to other Stewart works; the troublesome loose newel post, one of the most obvious.

Although he was not quite a geriatric senior, and would continue to work in the industry for another four decades—with his last credit as Wylie Burp in “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West” (1991); and knowing that he went out happily voicing an animated basset hound sheriff makes me all warm inside—by “Hobbs'” release, the actor was at a point where he could no longer ignore his mortality, and to his credit, Stewart embraced a new screen identity as a slightly balding and grey haired grandpa. Still the loveable everyman, but older. Wisely, the actor, and the filmmakers he worked with in the twilight of his career, integrated his increasing anachronistic appearance and attitude into the characters he played; oldsters on their way-out in his latter-day oaters, and slightly cynical family men set in their ways. The latter of which is how Stewart plays Roger Hobbs, a midwestern bank manager getting on in years. Hobbs’ youngest child, and only son (Michael Burns), is on the cusp of teenage-hood and absolutely obsessed with television. One of his daughters (Lauri Peters) actually is a teenager, and she’s obsessed with boys and also frighteningly self-conscious about her serious case of brace face. His two eldest (Lili Gentle and Natalie Trundy) are married and have children of their own. Roger does not like either of his sons-in-law, one of whom (Josh Peine) is a workaholic and the other (John Saxon) a progressive college professor who has plenty of “new age” things to say about child development and psychology.

Much to the chagrin of his wife Peggy (Maureen O’Hara), Hobbs raves and rants against the changing times. The old man is frequently flustered and doesn't understand his kids, who increasingly marginalize him anyway. Everything is moving much to fast for Roger, who we meet in the pre-credit sequence in a traffic jam on a busy highway, furious and literally boxed in by the busy world around him. So Hobbs decides to take the wife on a vacation, to Europe, without the kids, and hopes to get away from it all. Only, when Roger tells Peggy this, she reveals other plans. Ma and Pa Hobbs are taking the kids to California for the summer, where she’s rented a house. The whole family will be there; his older daughters, their husbands and children included. Roger’s rather unhappy about it, and even angrier when they arrive to find the rented beach house is a barely standing deathtrap; a dilapidated two-story made of rotting wood, with a malfunctioning well-water pump and without many modern amenities. Hobbs is at least a little happy when son Danny informs him, “Dad, there’s no aerial!”, wondering how he'll ever watch TV again.

Adapted by screenwriter Nunnally Johnson from a novel by Edward Streeter, the picture has an unusual narrative structure made even more peculiar by the initial, post opening credits, framing device. The story is told almost entirely in flashback, as Hobbs recounts his latest summer holiday to his secretary. This manifests some odd stylistic quirks, like an intermittent and almost ethereal voiceover from Hobbs intruding uncomfortably on events, either narrating or articulating internal monologue for little reason (most of what he says amounts to unnecessary exposition that’s often already explained elsewhere). But the structure also allows the picture to a keep pleasant if predictable pace, effectively dumping each vignette when it's been thoroughly mined of comedy. The film swiftly moves on to the next episode and madcap mishap. Repeated gags have all the hallmarks of further sitcom influence. The problems with the pesky water-pump; Roger’s run-ins with a much younger naughty neighbor (Valerie Varda), who chats him up by talking about Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" of all things, and then recoils later when she finds out she’s been flirty with a grandfather (Peggy throws an off-handed, then-timely reference to “Lolita”, calling her husband Humbert Humbert); and there's a rather dated but amusing recurring joke about the house’s “party line” telephone always being busy with the sounds of two gossiping battle-axes. Only a few of the, less humorous, plot lines really drag the picture down. One of the elder Hobbs daughters melodramatic marriage troubles pop up suddenly and prove strangely resolved much later, and a subplot featuring the youngest, Katey, who overcomes her brace-faced fears to take up a summer romance with a doofy guy played by early 1960's teen idol Fabian, seems plucked from another movie entirely. The summer romance sequence even has a random musical number for some reason (the reason being, Fabian needed to sell records, I guess).

When the film works, it works because of Stewart; anytime it doesn’t, he’s not one screen, and has been pushed aside for bits that really have no place in the story. If “Hobbs” had been a television sitcom, these asides would be the bad episodes of the season, shot because the series was running over budget and needed to bring costs down by keeping the real star off screen. Nice touches include a sequence with Hobbs and his son aboard a sailboat, where they bond while getting lost at sea in fog, and the rekindling quinquagenarian romance between Stewart and O'Hara as longtime husband and wife is kind of sweet. The film culminates in perhaps the most sitcom-y scenario of the screenplay, in which the workaholic son-in-law asks Hobbs to entertain a prospective employer stopping by on holiday. The painfully boring birdwatcher (played by John McGiver) and wife (Marie Wilson) turn out to be quite the scandalous boozers at night—and the suggestive turn of events, in which Hobbs ends up locked in a bathroom with a naked woman prove one of the instances where "Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation" is a little more scandalous than would've ever been seen on television in that day and age, although it's incredibly tame today.

Koster's direction is workmanlike but effective, seamlessly integrating soundstage material, scant location photography, and rear projection sequences. The screenplay, whatever issues it has structurally, offers a few amusing scenarios and some very funny lines; and there's a slightly jaded cynicism lurking underneath, in the Hobbs character's I've-had-it attitude, that very interestingly clashes with the purportedly wholesome family elements. With music by Henry Mancini (fresh off his two Academy Award wins for "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961)) and widescreen cinematography by William C. Mellor, "Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation" looks and sounds a lot better than it really needs to.

Video

Hollywood’s war against television, and the widescreen revolution of the 1950's that was their primary weapon of choice, gave rise to a number of competing photographic processes and exhibition formats, some of which settled into widespread use, while others died off by the middle 60's. 20th Century Fox’s own anamorphic CinemaScope, which debuted in their bloated biblical epic “The Robe” (1953), was the most widely proliferated process in the industry in the early widescreen era, alongside the cheaper and simpler 1.85:1 matting of standard 35mm film. Both processes are ostensibly—at least their aspect ratios, once CinemaScope narrowed down to 2.35:1 after some debate—the most popular today. CinemaScope was not without issue, and the early lenses produced by Bausch & Lomb had an optical flaw that applied an uneven squeeze on the image, resulting in the fat-faced distortion divisively known as the “CinemaScope Mumps”. But by the early part of the 1960's, both Fox—which still used their CinemaScope branding—and Panavision—which had created their own anamorphic alternative—had eliminated the “mumps”. Other problems, from spiking grain to detail loss as film was duped away from the negative for optical edits, manifested in the labs of the era, forever baked into the original photography and available film elements, had become less noticeable too, but hadn't quite disappeared.

“Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation” was shot in CinemaScope by cinematographer William C. Mellor, who died shortly after filming (while on the set of his next and last film, “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965)). He was working alongside director Henry Koster, who had helmed “The Robe” a decade earlier. Perhaps because of the talent behind the camera, the film has a strange sense space and elaborate staging that’s much too majestic for the subject simple subject matter, but that was probably intentional—a mega-wide counter to the narrow window of the sitcoms on the small screen. “Hobbs” looks better than it has any right to. Likewise Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, which is encoded in 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 high definition. A few, very minor, issues aside it's an excellent transfer. The disc looks much better than I was expecting for a film farmed out to another distributor; good enough that Fox could’ve released it themselves. There are some minimal damage marks in a handful of scenes, but the source is otherwise in great shape, excepting an extended sequence with Hobbs and son aboard a sailboat lost at sea in a literally impenetrable fog (most of which is processed rear projection, coupled with diffusion filters and smoke machines). The image has a fine layer of film grain, is sharp with impressive detail, and doesn’t appear washed out or faded. Color is a tad on the muted brown side, but such is the way with most Fox films of the era done in De Luxe Color; the occasional pop of more vibrant hues, like red—Hobbs’ bathrobe—or pink can be quite striking.

The master supplied by Fox appears untouched by artificial sharpening and noise reduction, and there are no compression artifacts to note in Twilight Time’s high bitrate encode of the source. The most distressing element of the entire presentation are the inherent and unavoidable inconsistencies brought on by the film’s use of rear projection and the jarring seconds-long drop off from the optional dupes during fades and other edit points. Those familiar with 60's cinema, and particularly the peculiarities of opticals, won’t take issue with these scenes; others, who might be uninformed and are unaccustomed should know that there’s nothing that can be be done. With some minor touch up to eliminate the sporadic but by no means bothersome speckling, “Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation” could look a little better than it does here, but this is still a solid presentation, and a pleasant surprise considering it's not a prestige title.

Audio

“Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation” was released late enough in the CinemaScope cycle that multi-channel sound had once again fallen to the wayside in the industry, reserved only for large format Roadshow type features. “Hobbs”, a mere comedy, played theatrically in mono. The film’s original monaural mix has been preserved, encoded in English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 (48kHz/24-bit). Dynamic range is modest, with a faint boxiness noticeable in Henry Mancini’s musical score (which is even more obvious in direct comparison with the disc’s isolated score, in stereo), but dialogue is always clear and intelligible, and there are no serious pops, clicks, hiss or other age-related artifacts. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray offers an authentic, clean, lossless reproduction of an inherently spare, single-channel source. The disc also includes optional English subtitles.

Extras

The on disc extras consist of a Fox Movietone newsreel, the original theatrical trailer for “Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation”, and an isolated score. An 8-page booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo has also been included.

The newsreel, entitled “Movietone Movie Lot” (1.33:1; 480p; 1 minute 13 seconds) is a vintage piece featuring footage of the University of Minnesota Gophers football team visit to the set of “Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation”, including their photo-op with Jimmy Stewart and his co-stars.

The original theatrical trailer (2.35:1, enhanced widescreen; 480p; 2 minutes 58 seconds) is a typically overblown slice of early 60's movie marketing, which goes far beyond a teaser and recaps the entire in picture in a painfully protracted way.

The brassy jazz and beach-guitar-backed themes of composer Henry Mancini’s score are not among his most memorable motifs, but the soundtrack proves an enjoyable listen as offered in an isolated score option, encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo. Taken from the original stereo stems, the soundtrack has a wider range than the main monaural mix, in large part due to actual stereo separation. Cues are played in full, including the innocuous “Cream Puff” musical number written by Mancini and Johnny Mercer.

Distributor Twilight Time has included a catalogue consisting of 24 pages that shows off their collection of films on Blu-ray, all titles are limited to 3,000 copies only and a few of them are already sold out.

Packaging

“Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation” comes to Blu-ray courtesy boutique home entertainment distributor Twilight Time as part of their "Limited Edition Series". Like other Twilight Time titles, the Blu-ray is limited to 3,000 units. The region free disc is packaged in an Infiniti keep case.

Overall

“Mr. Hobbs Takes A Vacation” is light entertainment; a sitcom in CinemaScope. The script is uneven but funny, and there are some strange quirks, but even lazing about by the beachside, Jimmy Stewart never gave a bad performance, and his slightly acerbic turn as the titular patriarch pushes the picture in an unexpected direction—latching onto a ranting cynicism lurking in the in-between spaces of Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay. Taken on its own terms, the film is enjoyable; moderate fun with a very 60's aesthetic. In the context of Hollywood history, it's far more interesting, as an artifact of its era, than anyone involved in the production probably ever intended it to be. Hobbs' nostalgic wish for a return to simpler times, and his tenuous relationship with television strike a peculiar chord, singing the song of troubled industry slightly out of tune, forced to compete that dreaded invention by imitating it. The Blu-ray release features genuinely solid video and audio, and the usual isolated score and booklet as extras. Very lightly recommended.

Available to purchase exclusively only at Screen Archives Entertainment.

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The Film: B- Video: B+ Audio: B Extras: D+ Overall: B

 


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