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Anchor Bay presents
Melvin and Howard (1980)

"You think that Melvin Dummar's gonna get 156 million dollars, or anything like it? Naw, I'm not gonna see that money. That's all right. 'Cause you know what happened? Howard Hughes sang Melvin Dummar's song. That's what happened."
- Melvin Dummar (Paul LeMat)

Review By: Dale Dobson   
Published: June 20, 2000

Stars: Paul LeMat, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen
Other Stars: Jack Kehoe, Pamela Reed, Michael J. Pollard
Director: Jonathan Demme

Manufacturer: Crest National
MPAA Rating: R for (nudity, language)
Run Time: 01h:34m:26s
Release Date: October 12, 1999
UPC: 013131092394
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+C+B+ B-

DVD Review

Melvin and Howard recounts the arguably true story of one Melvin Dummar, a simple, hard-working dreamer who picks up an injured old man in the Nevada desert late one night. The man claims to be Howard Hughes, but Dummar has no reason to believe him and goes on with his life as a family man and would-be songwriter with a good heart and absolutely no ability to manage money. Several jobs, numerous auto repossessions and two marriages follow, until one day Hughes passes away and a mysterious will appears on Dummar's gas station desk. Publicity and a court trial follow, but Dummar is content in his knowledge of the truth regardless of whether he ever gets the multi-million dollar inheritance specified in the intensely contested will.

The truth of Dummar's story has never been established or refuted, but Jonathan Demme's film (from Bo Goldman's script) follows Melvin's recollections closely (the real Melvin Dummar participated in the research and makes a cameo appearance in the film.) It's certainly a credible story—he's not the only beneficiary named in the will, the entire document was handwritten (making skilled forgery less likely), no "real" will has ever emerged, and I agree with the film's assertion that the best way for Hughes' corporation to cast doubt on the will would have been to deliver it to one of the beneficiaries for "discovery." But the film doesn't dwell on the supposed facts of the matter—it's a gently comic, warm-hearted take on life and values in America as experienced by one sympathetic "loser." Demme tells Dummar's story as a series of events "spliced together"—they occur in chronological order for the most part, but the narrative sometimes leaps over large chunks of time. These "jumps" aren't explicitly cued, but they're handled skillfully with no confusion or loss of continuity. Demme takes a few liberties with reality for the sake of humor and effect—his world never rings false, but his camera isn't completely neutral either, lending a satirical but never cynical tone to this observation of how one unusual event can impact a man's life.

Melvin and Howard is chock-full of excellent work by a stellar cast. Paul LeMat gives his best performance to date as Dummar—he plays him as kind and generous but not too bright and certainly irresponsible, prone to spending money he doesn't have. He loses his wife Lynda (twice) even though he loves her deeply and continues to love her after both have found new spouses, and LeMat's uncluttered, unapologetically optimistic approach makes Dummar seem genuine. Mary Steenburgen (in her second film) won an Academy Award for her work as the put-upon Lynda, and her facial expressions speak volumes about her often-conflicted feelings. She's also very funny in two of her best scenes, awkwardly but energetically dancing in a strip club and on the "Easy Street" game show. Jason Robards' appearance as Howard Hughes is brief but riveting—his sharp eyes and gravelly voice communicate intelligence and world-weariness in equal measure, and he's sheer joy to watch onscreen. Great supporting contributions by Jack Kehoe, Pamela Reed and especially Robert Ridgely (improvising comfortably as the unctious, slightly risque "Easy Street" host) help give this film its realistic but slightly skewed feel.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Anchor Bay's DVD presents Melvin and Howard in its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, with an anamorphic transfer. The source print is in nice condition with solid color for the most part, though the the early scenes are darker than they appear in the accompanying trailer and flesh tones tend towards red in a few scenes. The image is a little bit soft (the 1980 film was not remastered for this release) but details are solid, with the only "blurriness" turning up during the challenging end credits where bright red letters bleed onto the dark background slightly (probably exacerbated by 4:3 downconversion on my system). The digital compression is well-executed with no blockiness or shimmering, and this is a very watchable (if only just above average) transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Melvin and Howard retains its original monophonic soundtrack, nicely mastered for this DVD release. Frequency range is solid by pre-digital standards, with good bass and crisp treble in musical passages, consistently clear dialogue and subtly rich sound effects. This isn't a film that cries out for a broader mix, and Anchor Bay has done a fine job capturing the existing mono track.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Jonathan Demme, Toby Rafelson
Packaging: Alpha
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Anchor Bay provides a worthwhile if not particulary innovative or extensive set of DVD supplements for Melvin and Howard. Menus are well-designed, with music from the film and a Howard Hughes "handwriting" font employed for all onscreen text in an extremely cool and appropriate touch. Value-added supplements include:

Trailer -

The film's original theatrical trailer is presented with a solid 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer; the print is a little soft but noticeably brighter than the main attraction. It's a well-made trailer that doesn't distort the film's intentions, with some well-executed "trailer only" slot machine footage.

Talent Bios -

This section presents well-written, extensive text biographies and selected filmographies for director Jonathan Demme, screenwriter Bo Goldman, and stars Paul LeMat, Jason Robards and Mary Steenburgen.

Commentary -

A very affectionate commentary track is provided by Jonathan Demme and production designer Toby Rafelson. The two share semi-distant memories of the cast and crew, with some humorous and interesting production notes and stories. Demme surprised me with his warmth and generosity—he's such an innovative director I expected him to focus on technical aspects of the production, but he obviously loves these characters and the people he worked with while making the film. He discusses several intriguing deleted scenes, unfortunately not included on this DVD. Demme and Rafelson frequently go silent and just watch the film, and their screen-specific comments seem to lag the playback by a few seconds, but this is an informative and enjoyable commentary.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

Melvin and Howard is a well-executed, too-often-overlooked American film about hard times, values, and luck both good and bad. Anchor Bay's anamorphic DVD is solid if not spectacular with good supplements, and the film itself is funny, touching and substantial. Recommended.


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