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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #34
The Best of 2006 and New Announcements


This first Classic Coming Attractions column of 2007 focuses on trying to close the books on 2006. I've rounded up most of the remaining unreviewed discs from 2006 still on my shelves and provided each of them a brief rundown for your interest. Many of them are sets which have taken some time to look at adequately enough to make a judgment, hence the delay in their coverage. Some 25 releases are covered (Laurel and Hardy Collection: Volume Two; Charlie Chan Collection: Volume Two; Will Rogers Collection: Volume Two; Perry Mason: Season One, Volume Two; Mission: Impossible - The Complete First TV Season; Gunsmoke: The Directors Collection; The Premiere Frank Capra Collection; Dean Martin Double Feature; Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection; Bing Crosby: Screen Legend Collection; Cary Grant: Screen Legend Collection; Rock Hudson: Screen Legend Collection; Flower Drum Song; Long John Silver; Joe E. Brown Comedy Collector's Set; Legendary Outlaws Collector's Set; Western Film Noir: Volume One; George Reeves Double Feature, King Dinosaur 50s Sci-Fi Double Feature; Overland Mail; Raiders of Ghost City; Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume One; Tarzan Collection: Volume Two; Classic Comedy Teams Collection; and Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection). I'm also including my take on the best of 2006 as well as the usual summary of new announcements.


The Best of 2006

Coming up with best-of lists is a mugs game, but I know it goes with the territory so here's my attempt. But please don't ask me to choose a number one on each list. I finally gave up after vacillating between various titles for several days.

I've divided the 2006 releases between those for single titles and those that were box sets, and come up with my top ten for each grouping. Most of the titles have been reviewed in either the current or previous editions of the column, so I urge you to seek out details there as I don't propose to reprise them here. Herewith the lists, each organized alphabetically.

Top Ten 2006 Classic Single Title Releases

Beyond the Rocks (1922, from Milestone)
Canterbury Tale, A (1944, from Criterion)
Complete Mr. Arkadin, The (1955, from Criterion)
Double Indemnity: Legacy Series (1944, from Universal)
Grand Prix (1966, from Warner Bros.)
Maltese Falcon, The: Special Edition (1941, from Warner Bros.)
Pandora's Box (1928, from Criterion)
Ryan's Daughter (1970, from Warner Bros.)
Searchers, The: Ultimate Edition (1956, from Warner Bros.)
Seven Samurai (1954, from Criterion)

Top Ten 2006 Classic Box Set Releases

Busby Berkeley Collection, The (from Warner Bros.)
Cary Grant Box Set, The (from Sony)
Charlie Chan Collection, The: Volume Two (from Fox)
John Wayne/John Ford Film Collection, The (from Warner Bros.)
Motion Picture Masterpieces Collection (from Warner Bros.)
Mr. Moto Collection, The: Volume One (from Fox)
Premiere Frank Capra Collection, The (from Sony)
Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection (from Universal)
Sam Peckinpah Collection, The (from Warner Bros.)
Warner Bros. Pictures Tough Guys Collection (from Warner Bros.)

"An awful lot of titles on people's wish lists were crossed out with these various releases, not to mention numerous other releases that all had merits that made them worthy contenders for the above lists also. Of course, there are still many gaping holes as far as classic enthusiasts are concerned and hope springs eternal that a new year will address those deficiencies - Clark Gable, James Cagney, early Spencer Tracy, more Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, more Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, Jean Harlow, Ann Sheridan, early Paramount, pre-code films, Fox musicals, more B series films - to list but a few.

Some studios such as Warner Bros. and Fox seem to have the bit firmly between their teeth, with an impressive roster of releases already revealed … Universal with some nice announcements this past week is coming on strong, while Sony and Paramount have been slow to get out of the gate. One hopes, in Paramount's case, that the early-year doldrums merely reflects attention to its recent reacquisition of the Republic catalog and that that will pay rich dividends later this year with more John Wayne releases and some of Republic's many fine serials and B western titles.

The smaller companies like Criterion, Image, Kino, Milestone, and VCI will all have classic treasures mixed in among their offerings as they have in the past. Increasingly though, I would direct classic enthusiasts to some of the small dealers who specialize in early B films made available on DVD-R. In most cases, that's the only way you're going to see such films in your favorite format. Grapevine Video, ReelClassicDVD, and Sinister Cinema are but a few of such outfits whose catalogs are worth perusing, in terms of obscure titles combined with quite decent DVD presentations.

… high definition will increasingly be an issue. Already, we've had several classic titles mentioned as being available in HD later this year. I don't think, however, we need fear HD eroding releases of classic titles at least in the short term, for standard definition DVD will continue to be the studios' bread and butter for home video releases over the next few years."


If the above quote sounds familiar, it's partly because that's what I wrote in the first column of last year. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose - for much of it could equally apply to 2007. Classic enthusiasts are still looking for more Clark Gable, James Cagney, early Spencer Tracy, more Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, more Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, Jean Harlow, Ann Sheridan, early Paramount, pre-code films, Fox musicals, and more B series films - even though some of those desires were met in 2006. Warners and Fox continue to lead the way among the major studios, with Universal making good inroads. Sony and Paramount still appear to be in the doldrums, and Paramount doesn't even have its Republic holdings to look forward to this year, having foolishly licensed them back to Lionsgate. At least both companies are re-releasing some of their classic holdings; that may not yield anything new, but it does at least signal that such titles haven't been forgotten entirely and may provide inspiration for some actual new classic releases later in the year. (I know, hope springs eternal.) We can still look with confidence to the smaller companies to fill some of our needs and we still can expect that DVD will be the studios' bread and butter despite the heightened profile of HD releases including a few rather impressive ones of classic titles.

All in all, I think it's fair to say that the new year looks promising and if it can deliver as well as 2005 and 2006 did on the classic front, I think we'll all be happy. And if some of those obscure and/or favourite titles aren't on the official release horizon, there's always the combination of Turner Classic Movies (who've added some nice early Columbia titles to their schedule to go with their vast WB/MGM/RKO holdings) and your handy DVD recorder to help out in the meantime.


Reviews

I've organized the review coverage for this column by releasing studio. Comments will be briefer than usual on each title in order to provide as extensive coverage as possible of all the titles that have backed up on my shelves and so clear the decks for the 2007 releases.

Laurel and Hardy Collection: Volume Two

Fox's last quarter releases have featured three box sets that are each the second volumes of tributes to either film stars or enduring film characters. The Laurel and Hardy Collection: Volume Two completes the DVD presentation of the team's 1940s features for Fox with A-Haunting We Will Go, The Dancing Masters, and The Bullfighters. The conventional view that the Fox features are substandard efforts continues to be under scrutiny with the appearance of these discs, and viewings of them confirm that the films are not nearly as bad as had been claimed for a long time. They're certainly no masterpieces and not in the same realm as the boys' best work, but as diverting afternoon entertainments, they're easy to take and readily evoke modest chuckles. The best-looking film on disc is also the most enjoyable of the set - The Bullfighters - a film in which the boys head south of the border on the trail of a female thief, but manage to end up in the bullfighting ring. Several of the boys' old routines are well revived and Richard Lane provides good support. At the other end of the scale, A-Haunting We Will Go is the least of the set, seeming to confirm its status as one of the boys' worst outings ever, but even it offers flashes of amusement in the Laurel and Hardy style. Compared to what passes as screen comedy today, the film is hilarious (well, maybe not hilarious but at least eye-crinkling) as the boys get mixed up in a murder mystery involving Dante the Magician's stage show. In between, The Dancing Masters has a peripatetic plot that somehow jumps from the boys running a dancing studio to them getting involved with the inventor of an invisible ray. Perhaps it's the idea of throwing everything into the plot that keeps it all afloat because there's always something new to help one overlook the bits of business that don't always come off. The set somewhat mirrors the first volume as two of the films (particularly The Bullfighters) look very nice on disc while the third (The Dancing Masters) looks like it came from some questionable source material. The supplements are superior and include very informative audio commentaries by film historian Scott MacGillivray, liner notes by Randy Skretvedt, several new and vintage featurettes, The Tree in a Test Tube 1943 short, and incomplete original theatrical trailers. Recommended.

Charlie Chan Collection: Volume Two

The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume 2 follows up the first volume with four of the next five Chan films chronologically - Charlie Chan at the Circus, Charlie Chan at the Race Track, Charlie Chan at the Opera, and Charlie Chan at the Olympics. They originate in the 1936-1937 time period with only Charlie Chan's Secret from 1936 overlooked for now. All four films star Warner Oland as Chan, with Keye Luke appearing as Number One Son. Taken as a whole, the package represents the Chan series at its best. Certainly Charlie Chan at the Opera, often considered to be one of the top Chan films, is very entertaining with its well-plotted story and excellent supporting work from Boris Karloff and William Demarest (not to mention a short opera especially written for the film by Oscar Levant), but the other three stories (whose titles pretty much tell the tale) are all fine mysteries with the usual blend of mystery, red herrings, and humour. Charlie Chan at the Olympics does a nice job of capitalizing on a then topical event and blending some newsreel footage into the film effectively, while Charlie Chan at the Circus makes good use of actual circus location shooting. All four films look better on DVD than did the titles in the first volume, with images generally sharper and better detailed. There is some grain and minor speckling present, but they're never intrusive, and a couple of the titles exhibit very nice gray scales (Charlie Chan at the Opera and Charlie Chan at the Race Track). The mono sound is in good shape and as with volume 1, several very informative featurettes have been added (particularly good are the ones on Keye Luke and director H. Bruce Humberstone). Highly recommended.

Will Rogers Collection: Volume Two

One of the biggest surprises of Fox's mid-2006 output was its set of four Will Rogers films, a release which the studio has now followed up with four more (The Will Rogers Collection: Volume 2). The titles, all from 1931-1933, are a surprise as very few people will have heard of Ambassador Bill, David Harum, Mr. Skitch, or Too Busy to Work. However, it's all good news for classic aficionados and it likely means that we can look forward to a third set since Rogers' best known films have yet to appear (Judge Priest, Doctor Bull, State Fair, A Connecticut Yankee). The films David Harum (a racetrack story in which Rogers has a weakness for the ponies) and Too Busy to Work (Rogers is a tramp who manages to avoid work as he ostensibly searches for his wife) seem to fit the Rogers persona well and both are easygoing amusements. Ambassador Bill, based on a well-known novel of the time, finds Rogers playing a U.S. ambassador to a fictitious European country, but the film seems rather punchless nowadays. Mr. Skitch, in which Rogers heads west with his wife (Zasu Pitts) and family to seek their fortune in Hollywood, is rather uneven as it careens from folksy humour to romance to travelogue. The films are all quite watchable on DVD and have received considerable restoration work by Fox (as evidenced by the restoration comparisons included on the discs), although there's still noticeable softness at times, some variable contrast, and some age-related defects. Fox has included a couple of new featurettes as well as two vintage pieces - a 1921 silent short (with musical accompaniment) starring Rogers (The Ropin' Fool) and an early sound broadcast of Rogers commenting on then current economic conditions, both of which are very thoughtful inclusions by Fox. Recommended.

Perry Mason: Season One, Volume Two

If you've got about three days to spare and want to relive the best of classic television drama, you can't go wrong with three recent Paramount/CBS offerings - first-rate mystery and courtroom drama with Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 2; thoroughly engrossing thriller/espionage drama from Mission: Impossible - The Complete First TV Season; and comfortable yet continually interesting western drama from Gunsmoke: The Directors Collection. Anyone who's been getting any of the CBS/Paramount TV-on-DVD collaborations (such as the earlier 50th anniversary Gunsmoke boxes, the first Perry Mason volume, the I Love Lucy and Andy Griffith Show seasons, the Have Gun Will Travel seasons, and so on) knows that the quality has been consistently high and that proves to be the case with each of these three recent sets - both in terms of program content and the disc transfers. The Perry Mason set contains the 20 episodes that rounded out the first season. The stories (most adapted from the Erle Stanley Gardner novels) continue to be addictively entertaining, blending as they do top-notch plotting and interesting and likable characters. Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, and William Hopper particularly were all becoming very comfortable-looking together on the screen, and the interaction with William Talman and Ray Collins on the prosecution side works very well. There are numerous opportunities to spot well-known character actors (Morris Ankrum, Dabbs Greer, Paul Picerni, Denver Pyle, Grant Withers, Frank Wilcox, etc.) as well as new or established players (Angie Dickinson, Fay Wray, Arthur Franz, Phyllis Coates, etc.). The material is presented on five discs, but there's no sign so far of the supplements that we had been led to expect with the series.

Mission: Impossible - The Complete First TV Season

The first season of Mission: Impossible gives us all 28 episodes and a sampling of them confirms that they hold up very well. Indeed, Tom Cruise should wish that his theatrical versions had nearly the intelligence and suspense that any one of the weekly episodes possesses. Steven Hill plays the leader of the group in this first season (although the role would become associated with Peter Graves for the vast majority of the seven-year series that lasted from 1966 to 1973), supported by a team that includes Greg Morris, Peter Lupus, Barbara Bain, and Martin Landau. Each episode begins with the traditional assignment ("should you choose to accept it") presented on a self-disintegrating tape, and the team then proceeds to develop and carry out an intricately planned scheme to carry it out. The assignments are often set in fictional foreign locales and usually involve carefully-timed and executed physical and mental deceptions. An amazing amount is packed into each episode and the pleasure lies in seeing how well choreographed the planning and execution is each time. The series was shot in colour which is brightly and accurately presented in the seven-disc set and the new Dolby 5.1 tracks are quite effective (the original mono tracks are present too). There are no supplements.

Gunsmoke: The Directors Collection

The Gunsmoke set gives us 15 episodes representing 11 seasons of the 20-year series. Seven of them are half hour programs and the rest are hour-long ones, and in the course of them, we get to reacquaint ourselves with all the series favourites - Matt (James Arness), Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake), Chester (Dennis Weaver), Doc (Milburn Stone), and Festus (Ken Curtis). Among the directors represented are John Rich, Ted Post, Arthur Hiller, Andrew V. McLaglen, Mark Rydell, Robert Stevenson, and Charles Marquis Warren, as well as actors such as Peter Graves, Dennis Weaver, and William Conrad (Matt Dillon's voice on radio) who also had the opportunity to step behind the camera. The material is presented on three discs and generally looks very nice. Interestingly, the post-1960 episodes don't look quite as bright and crisp as the 1950s ones on the whole. There are some good supplements including director commentaries on seven of the episodes and the CBS radio broadcasts for four of the half-hour shows. All three of these CBS/Paramount sets are recommended.

The Premiere Frank Capra Collection

The month of December saw Sony actually give us three classic releases - a bone tossed to classic enthusiasts at the end of the year. They comprised a Frank Capra collection, a Dean Martin double feature, and the stand-alone release of Holiday (previously reviewed in Classic Coming Attractions as part of last winter's Cary Grant Box Set). Would that they all meant better things ahead in 2007, but the first two months announcements suggest Sony is still asleep at the classics switch. In the early days of DVD, Sony (or Columbia as it was still known then) was one of the leaders when it came to classic film releases with its fine Columbia Classics series. Among the releases were many of Frank Capra's most recognizable films, most given some form of SE treatment although the video quality was not always the stuff that dreams are made of. Sony has now revisited these titles (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and added in the previously unreleased American Madness to yield a new box set - The Premiere Frank Capra Collection. (Hopefully that title presages a second Capra collection.) The first four titles need little comment from me, as they're all excellent entertainments and basic titles for inclusion in even the most rudimentary classic film collection. American Madness displays much of the theme, style, and comfortable casting that characterizes Capra's later blockbusters, but even better offers an opportunity to see the wonderful Walter Huston in action - in this case as a beleaguered banker who believes in giving loans based on character during the Great Depression. Capra got his opportunity on the film only after Allan Dwan and Roy William Neill had initial cracks at it - an important development for Columbia as the film and Capra helped Columbia begin to rise from the Poverty Row status it then had. The film looks just fine on DVD with a transfer that offers a very nice gray scale and a generally sharp image. Sony is advertising the four other re-released titles as having new transfers and that is the case. Each represents an improvement over what was available previously although to a modest degree. You Can't Take It with You looked the worst among the original versions and it's definitely better in terms of contrast and level of scratches and debris, but room for improvement still exists particularly in the area of sharpness consistency. Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith are both cleaner and slightly better detailed than on their first versions; It Happened One Night fairs similarly although it looks a little darker at times. The mono sound on all the discs is quite acceptable, although characterized by variable levels of hiss. For a Sony classics release, the supplements are commendable. The good extras packages from the original Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds, and It Happened One Night SEs are included on the new discs (mainly audio commentaries and making-of documentaries featuring Frank Capra Jr.). You Can't Take It with You has been upgraded with a new audio commentary and documentary, while American Madness features the same combination. Better yet, Sony has added a sixth disc to the set that includes the fine two-hour Frank Capra's American Dream documentary on the director as well as four other Capra-related featurettes. Finally there's a nicely-produced 90-odd page booklet on the Capra films with plenty of background information liberally accompanied by publicity materials. A most attractive package that's highly recommended.

Dean Martin Double Feature

Less thrilling is the Dean Martin Double Feature that packages Who Was That Lady? (1959) with How to Save a Marriage (and Ruin Your Life) (1967). The former is much the better of the two as Martin teams amiably with Tony Curtis as a couple of buddies who pretend to be spies as a way to confuse Curtis's suspicious wife (Janet Leigh). The film is adeptly directed by George Sidney and benefits from a fine supporting cast (including James Whitmore and John McIntyre). Much less welcome is How to Save a Marriage which insults our intelligence as well as trying our patience (it seems much longer than the other film although its running time is shorter). It's hard to believe that a cast including Martin, Stella Stevens, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Betty Field, and Jack Albertson could be so uninspiring, but the tepid material (something about friends cheating on their wives in order to save the marriages of their buddies who cheated on their wives) had lost its appeal after a succession of similar films in the 60s. Both films have anamorphic transfers that are quite nice in terms of crispness and detail. The colour on How to Save Your Marriage looks great. There are no supplements. Who Was That Lady? would be worth a recommendation, but it doesn't come alone. Mainly for Dean Martin enthusiasts.

Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection

Universal had quite a month of November with the release of 23 classic titles spread over four box sets and one stand-alone disc. Twenty of the titles are new to DVD and 13 new to home video in any format. The highlight is the seven-title set of Preston Sturges films (Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection) that contains all of Sturges' best directing work (with the exception of Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which was previously released separately on DVD by Paramount). Included are: The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, The Palm Beach Story, The Great Moment, and Hail the Conquering Hero. Each gets its own disc in the set. Sure, three of these films are already available on DVD (Sullivan's Travels and The Lady Eve from Criterion, and The Palm Beach Story from Universal), but having them all together in an attractive package and presented with first-rate transfers is very beguiling. There are no extras to wade through other than a few trailers (Universal's standard approach on its classic titles!), so we can concentrate on the films themselves. With the exception of the rather curious The Great Moment (a biography of the anesthesia pioneer), all are first-rate comedy entertainments that offer limitless repeat potential. They offer the opportunity to see such stars as Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Eddie Bracken, Claudette Colbert, and Brian Donlevy in action, but more importantly, they allow a bevy of Hollywood character actors to shine (William Demarest, Akim Tamaroff, Charles Coburn, Raymond Walburn, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Eric Blore, Jimmy Conlin, Jack Norton, to name but a few). I'd be hard pressed to pick out the best titles, but certainly The Palm Beach Story, The Lady Eve, and Hail the Conquering Hero tend to be my favourites. As I mentioned, all the transfers look very good, offering modest grain and a generally bright and nicely-detailed image. There are slight differences in brightness and image detail between the Universal and Criterion transfers for the two titles available from both companies, but not significantly so. The Sturges set is highly recommended.

Cary Grant: Screen Legend Collection

Fifteen other classic titles have been made available on three box sets each focusing on a different star (Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson) and designated Screen Legend Collections. Now, I've seen comments opining the lack of high-profile titles among the films presented in these sets, but actually it's the lack of such titles and rather the focus on lesser-known and seldom-seen titles that makes these sets so attractive. I've long wanted to see some of the numerous Paramount productions that Cary Grant appeared in before he became a big star in the late 1930s. Now I can, and Thirty Day Princess, Kiss and Make Up, Wings in the Dark, Big Brown Eyes, and Wedding Present (all from the 1934-1936 period) fill the void. There's nothing startling about any of them, but all offer decent entertainment value that doesn't outstay its welcome timewise and interesting co-stars like Sylvia Sidney, Joan Bennett, Myrna Loy, Edward Arnold, Walter Pidgeon, and George Bancroft. The film images sport some grain and variable amounts of speckling, but the material is generally bright and well-enough defined to make all of them quite watchable. There are no supplements.

Bing Crosby: Screen Legend Collection

The Crosby collection provides a similar look at some films from the earlier part of Crosby's Paramount career before the impact of the Hope-Crosby "road" pictures (Waikiki Wedding, Double or Nothing, and two Universal releases - East Side of Heaven and If I Had My Way - all 1937-1940), and one from the same year as the Going My Way Best Actor Academy Award (Here Come the Waves - 1944). The four earlier films are all typical Crosby blends of comedy, romance, and music with Crosby playing a rolling stone type of character who manages to come up smelling like roses each time. For my taste, Double or Nothing and East Side of Heaven are the most enjoyable with Waikiki Wedding not far behind. Here Come the Waves is a more expensive production and has a wartime theme, but it also provides the same blend of music (including the well-known "Accentuate the Positive"), comedy and romance. The polished production and the support of Betty Hutton make it a winner. The quality of the transfers is on a par with those of the Cary Grant set. The supplement package consists of a total of one trailer (for Here Come the Waves).

Rock Hudson: Screen Legend Collection

Then we have the Rock Hudson package which gives us a taste of everything, from early (1952-1953) non-starring work in Douglas Sirk 1920s nostalgia (Has Anybody Seen My Gal?) and the Arabian Nights (The Golden Blade) to starring work (1961-1965) in a western (The Last Sunset), a East Indies-based potboiler (The Spiral Road), and tired romantic-comedy fluff (A Very Special Favor). The Last Sunset (despite its pretentiousness) and Has Anybody Seen My Gal? are the best of the five while the terminally dull The Spiral Road is the worst. The transfers are quite nice-looking on the whole with the three later widescreen films all anamorphically enhanced. There are some scratches and speckles as well as natural grain in evidence, but that's the least of one's concerns with some of these films. Supplements consist of a couple of trailers. The Crosby and Grant collections are recommended. The Hudson collection is for Rock Hudson completists only.

Flower Drum Song

Finally, Universal coughed up a very nice special edition of Flower Drum Song, the 1961 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. The film is a simple-minded tale of the clash of eastern and western cultures in 1950s San Francisco that results when a young Chinese woman arrives for an arranged marriage. A modest entertainment that's reasonably diverting overall, it presents plenty of musical numbers that are well choreographed but not particularly ones that you end up humming after it's all over. The film is a nice opportunity for a variety of Asian actors such as Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Jack Soo, and Benson Fong, and pleasingly spares us the sight of Caucasian stars made up to look oriental as had too often been the case in films previously. The musical is not near the top of my favourite R&H efforts, but I know it has a strong following. For those individuals, Universal's efforts should prove pleasing. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is bright and fairly sharp (though not quite as good as most of the R&H musicals in Fox's recent box set). Skin tones seem a little off at times, but otherwise I see little to quibble over. The Dolby 5.1 track is reasonably dynamic though there's little effective surround usage as one might expect. Supplements include a good audio commentary by Nancy Kwan and film historian Nick Redman, as well as several interesting featurettes documenting the story's transition from page to stage to screen. Recommended.


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