Papa's Delicate Condition Review

Released by Paramount in 1963, the George Marshall-directed Papa's Delicate Condition is a nice star vehicle for Jackie Gleason, who'd broken through in film only two years earlier as Minnesota Fats in Robert Rossen's The Hustler. Watching the movie now, it feels quaint, but in a good way - uncorrupted, maybe. The central concern, of the Gleason character's titular "condition," is approached timidly without being condescending. The film bridges comedy in the actor's evenly handled performance with a slight touch of sadness. Nothing here necessarily demands the viewer's immediate attention, but, at the very least, it's doubtful you'll feel any regret for watching.

The film is based on a memoir from silent film star Corinne Griffith, who's hardly known now and was one of the many casualties from the introduction of sound into movies. Her character in the adaptation shares her name, is six years old, and loves her papa. The affection is mutual. Unfortunately for Jack Griffith, played by Gleason, his wife Amberlyn and older daughter Augusta are less forgiving. Papa Jack's "condition" is his tendency to imbibe too much alcohol and subsequently behave impractically. Or at least that's the rap against him. In the movie, the things Jack does aren't really shown as being direct results of his drinking until his last blunder. He appears quite sober when agreeing to separately purchase a drug store and, later, a circus.

These little vignettes initially seem like plot detours until it becomes apparent that there really is no traditional plot. Jack slowly alienates his wife with ridiculous purchases, and the viewer gets the feeling his leash was already pretty short when we got here. It's otherwise a character piece, with every bit of story building into a fully-formed portrait of a man. This is a good distance from the expected. With Gleason, you anticipate broad Kramden-like comedy or maybe another variation of the Minnesota Fats character. The actor, and it's easy to confuse him as being merely a personality, seems to have combined his two most famous roles, along with a real soulful kindness, for his portrayal of Jack. It's a wonderful performance and yet another testament to Gleason's gracefulness on screen. When the film was made he was enjoying a nice run in starring parts, including Gigot, Requiem for a Heavyweight, and Soldier in the Rain. All three of these also played on the poignancy Gleason was capable of summoning.

Certainly The Hustler made use of this quality, perhaps even creating it to a certain extent, but, out of the five films mentioned, only Papa's Delicate Condition truly allowed him to avoid the desperate, pathetic aspects in favour of making the character more gentle, less outwardly down. In that regard, the film is essential, both as a solid effort for Gleason fans and as compelling evidence for those unfamiliar with his work outside of The Honeymooners. The character of Jack wants to please everyone and do the right thing, including a funny encounter with a purple and green house, but he also really likes his nips. When he buys the drug store, it's not entirely clear whether he's doing so for the investment, to help out the store employee who's about to get fired, or merely as a way to have unlimited booze at his disposal. Though Gleason does overplay the drunkenness a little in the scene, his performance of the song "Call Me Irresponsible" (which won an Academy Award) is perhaps the perfect culmination of the character's battle between family and habit.

That's not to imply this is an addiction movie of any stripe. It definitely is not, and the drinking is handled lightly without ever being dismissive. Something I've noticed about George Marshall's best films (and I've reviewed two - Houdini and Destry Rides Again - just recently) is that he really had a crafty knack for tone. His direction never lets the picture get too dark or entirely bubbly. There are laughs, but they're not "big," just as the less light moments avoid being overdone. Even the large set pieces, like when Jack's father-in-law (Charlie Ruggles) has his campaign event crashed, still feel very controlled and not overplayed or overemphasised.

The picture is a modest one, but it absolutely has its charms. There's nothing really daring or fashionable in here, and that's why it does work to some extent. Older films of limited ambition tend to be enjoyable precisely because of that humbleness, usually created by people trying to do a job instead of create art. It's difficult to imagine Papa's Delicate Condition being made even a decade after it was, much less now, and it's nice to have an opportunity to relax with it, maybe on a Sunday afternoon. (Flask optional.)

The Disc

Papa's Delicate Condition arrives in R1 via Legend Films' licensing deal with Paramount. As with other Legend titles, little effort seems to have been made to outfit the film with anything other than the barest of quality. The disc is single-layered and the image looks completely as-is. It's a VHS-level transfer. Lots of grain, frequent speckles, and faded, dull colours. Only the reds really stand out and skin tones seem too grey, to the point where Gleason nearly appears ashen. Detail is a bit soft, but not abnormally so. I'm assuming the original aspect ratio was 1.85:1, but it's presented 1.78:1 here, enhanced for widescreen televisions. On the plus side, this is the first release from Legend I've encountered that has been progressively transferred. Even with its shortcomings, the picture quality should be acceptable for most viewers.

Audio comes through clear and consistent in a flat English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. Dialogue is mixed well above the score and is always easily understood. At times, a hiss is buried low in the track, but it's nothing significant. Legend have failed to provide any subtitles with this release, a move that's inexcusable regardless of attempts at cost-cutting.

The only bonus material is the film's theatrical trailer (2:12) that heavily plays up Gleason's presence, even including an animated wind-up figure of the actor.

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