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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

A Few Reviews and the Latest New Classic Release Announcements

Time seems to pass by very quickly and here a month has already elapsed since the last classic announcements update. I had intended to accompany the February column with a new essay, but that will have to wait for another time. One item that will interest some readers - the impending annual springtime onslaught of western releases has encouraged me to start a new column offering under the Classic Coming Attractions heading. It'll deal exclusively with western films and TV series - the usual mix of articles, reviews, and new release announcements - but will extend to all westerns, not just those from before the 1970s. Thus you can expect reviews of the recent Deadwood box set and Bad Girls releases as well as coverage of the forthcoming classic titles. The column will be an intermittent offering driven by the level of DVD activity for the western genre. Look for the first one over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, here are a few reviews of current classic releases from Image (Mourning Becomes Electra), Columbia (Behold a Pale Horse, It Happened to Jane, Strangers When We Meet), Fox (The Agony and the Ecstasy, Laura, Satan Never Sleeps), and Warner Bros. (Dinner at Eight, The Letter, Libeled Lady). The latest new classic release announcements follow.


Dinner at Eight (1933)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on March 1st, 2005)

Grand Hotel had been a very successful 1932 MGM film that had featured an all-star cast in a story of many threads linked by a common setting. Eager to duplicate Grand Hotel's success, MGM again assembled the sort of star cast that only it could do at the time and put the players into a film version of the then-popular stage comedy by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, "Dinner at Eight". The play had a similar structure to Grand Hotel in that it also featured a number of different thread plots, in this case all linked by a similar event - a planned society dinner party. The party is the brainchild of Millicent Jordan and she has managed the social coup of snagging the attendance of Lord and Lady Ferncliffe whom she and her husband Oliver had met in England the previous year. Among the invitees to the party are Carlotta Vance who is a former stage star and close friend of Oliver's, gold-digging Kitty Packard and her husband magnate Dan Packard whom Oliver sees as a possible saviour for his troubled shipping company but is actually secretly trying to take it over, stage star Larry Renault now fallen on hard times but also the current love of the Jordan daughter Paula, and Dr. Wayne Talbot who is Kitty Packard's secret lover. The film follows the interactions of these various characters during the days leading up to the dinner and resolves the relationships - some for the better, some for the worse - by the time the attendees finally assemble at the Jordans' dinner party.

Dinner at Eight

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Dinner at Eight is a very amusing film. It is a much superior outing to the very dramatic Grand Hotel - a rather static spectacle for all its star power. The various threads are all well-linked in the plot and acted with skill in a substantially less-stagy manner. Starring are the likes of Lionel Barrymore (Oliver Jordan), John Barrymore (Larry Renault), Marie Dressler (Carlotta Vance), Billie Burke (Millicent Jordan), Wallace Beery (Dan Packard), Jean Harlow (Kitty Packard), and Edmund Lowe (Wayne Talbot). All do well, but the film belongs to Jean Harlow and Marie Dressler. Harlow finally reaches her full potential with this film and dominates every scene in which she appears. Marie Dressler was already an acknowledged if unlikely star phenomenon on the MGM lot and if you ever wondered why, you only have to see Carlotta in action in her scenes with Oliver at his shipping office. While Dressler benefits from the superior dialogue that is written for her character, she draws every possible comic nuance out of it through verbal intonation and body language. Both she and Harlow only appear together once in the film, during its final scene, but the result is one of the most memorable and frequently referenced endings in film history.

The film was David O. Selznick's first production for MGM after leaving RKO and he saw the value of bringing in George Cukor from RKO to direct. Cukor was a real actor's director and he managed to draw natural performances from players at a time when some were still struggling with overly-mannered film performances. Cukor also recognized the subtle comic aspects of much of the material and managed to manifest that subtlety on the screen. Cukor's participation was procured by subsequently loaning out Lionel Barrymore to RKO.

Warner Bros. presents the film full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio. The transfer is very good. The image is crisp, and characterized by deep black levels and an impressive gray scale. Mild grain is in evidence, while the image is free of edge effects. The result is a very film-like experience. Mild speckling is present along with the odd vertical line, but these are not distracting at all. The mono sound is clear with but mild background hiss occasionally evident. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The supplements are great. They include the fine TCM documentary on Jean Harlow (Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell) narrated by Sharon Stone, a very funny spoof of the film issued as the Vitaphone short Come to Dinner, and the film's theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.


Libeled Lady (1936)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on March 1st, 2005)

Twentieth Century and It Happened One Night, made in 1934, are generally considered to be two of the earliest screwball comedies. Both came from Columbia, at that time a small studio struggling to play with the big boys. Columbia, along with RKO, would go on to be the main studios known for screwball comedy, but all the others threw their hats into the ring from time to time. MGM may have thought it was all a little beneath its normally sophisticated air, but even it bowed to popular opinion and offered up Libeled Lady in 1936. In it, newsman Warren Haggerty is facing a libel suit from society diva Connie Allenbury and decides to employ Bill Chandler in order to deal with it. He first persuades his long-suffering fiancée Gladys to marry Chandler temporarily, in order to facilitate Chandler's work of trying to trap Connie into a compromising position so that she will drop the suit. After worming his way into Connie and her father's good graces, however, Chandler finds himself falling in love with Connie and begins to balk at carrying out his assignment for Haggerty. The pair elope, but when Haggerty realizes what has happened, he sees that confronting Connie with Chandler's apparent bigamy may be the means to getting the suit withdrawn.

Libeled Lady

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Libeled Lady is one of the high points of screwball comedy. It starts with wonderful casting, utilizing four of MGM's top stars in the main roles (Spencer Tracy as Haggerty, William Powell as Chandler, Myrna Loy as Connie, and Jean Harlow as Gladys). The four work very well together and all play characters that are strictly within type and so they impart a smoothness to the material that's a pleasure to watch. Strong support is provided by Walter Connolly (a frequent figure in screwball comedy) as Connie's father, and character actor watchers will be pleased to see the likes of Cora Witherspoon, Charley Grapewin, E.E. Clive, George Chandler, and William Benedict pop up. The premise of the story has many ridiculous aspects, not the least of which is Haggerty convincing his fiancée to marry someone else temporarily just to help him out of a jam, but that's merely standard procedure for screwball comedy, and the sharp dialogue is in the genre's best tradition. Veteran MGM house director Jack Conway keeps things moving at a brisk pace, particularly a hilarious demonstration of fishing by non-fisherman Chandler. With typically impressive MGM production gloss, and a barrel of laughs, this one is superior entertainment.

Warners' full frame transfer (in accord with the original aspect ratio) provides a bright image with deep black levels and very fine contrast. There are no edge effects. On the down side, the source material obviously has seen better days, for the image is characterized by substantial speckles and scratches - certainly in comparison to other Warner DVDs of this period. One does become accustomed to this after a while because of the high quality of the film content, so by all means don't let that deter you from acquiring the disc. The mono sound is in decent shape with only some mild background hiss. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. Supplements consist of a 14-minute radio trailer for the film entitled Leo Is On the Air, and the theatrical trailer - maybe not the usual bonanza on the Warner classic releases but certainly appropriate. Highly recommended.


The Letter (1940)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on January 11th, 2005)

One of the things that many classic fans have been looking for is more Bette Davis on DVD. So, the release of one of her best films, The Letter, is welcome indeed. Some may remember that when the title was first announced, it was to include the 1929 version of the film as well. Unfortunately that did not transpire, although it is understood that that version will eventually make an appearance as a separate disc. Interestingly, Warners remade the film again in 1947 as The Unfaithful starring Ann Sheridan, Lew Ayres, and Zachary Scott.

The Letter

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Based on a short story by Somerset Maugham, The Letter takes place near Singapore and begins with the killing of a man by Leslie Crosbie, the wife of rubber plantation overseer Robert Crosbie. She indicates that the man had made improper advances and she was forced to defend herself. Her case is taken by the Crosbies' friend and lawyer, Howard Joyce. As the case develops, however, it soon becomes clear that Leslie's story is far from true. The man had been her lover and was planning on leaving her for a native woman. An incriminating letter expressing Leslie's love for the man and summoning him to her home on the day she shot him will have to be bought from the native woman and secretly suppressed if she is to be found innocent.

The film reunited Davis with William Wyler, a director that she greatly trusted and admired. The two had previously worked successfully together on Jezebel. Wyler was very eager to work on The Letter as its mixture of the erotic and exotic offered scope for quite an interesting film exercise. The mood is immediately established by a brilliant opening sequence that establishes the quiet languid setting and then snaps us abruptly awake with a succession of gunshots. Wyler and screenwriter Howard Koch settled on the recurring motif of moonlight for Leslie's character, first highlighting then hiding scenes as the moon emerges from behind or is hidden by cloud. This motif allowed a distinctive film noir feel to many of the film's key scenes, particularly the opening and closing ones. Bette Davis gives a commanding performance, but equally impressive as Joyce was a relative newcomer to the Warner lot, James Stephenson. Stephenson received excellent reviews for his work and he looked to have a bright future, but within a year he was dead of a heart attack. Herbert Marshall also appears to good effect as Robert Crosbie. Interestingly, he had appeared in the 1929 version playing the murdered lover. Gale Sondergaard's performance as the native woman should also be mentioned for the air of hate and disgust that she conveys without saying a word. The Letter is a stylish film, well-acted, tightly edited, and memorably scored by Max Steiner. One wouldn't mistake it for anything other than a Warner Bros. product. It received seven Academy Award nominations (including best picture, best actress, and best director), but didn't win any.

Warners' full frame transfer (in accord with the original aspect ratio) looks extremely film-like. Deep blacks, clean whites, and excellent shadow detail combine with modest grain to give a very appealing image that shows off the film's wonderful composition and use of lighting to advantage. There are a few speckles, but no edge effects whatsoever. The mono sound is in great shape conveying both the dialogue and music score clearly, free of any age-related deterioration. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are also provided. The most significant supplement is an alternate ending that lasts about ten minutes and removes some scenes from the theatrical ending and alters others. There are also two Lux Radio Theater broadcasts and the film's theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.


Laura (1944)
(released on DVD by Fox on March 15th, 2005)

Well at last the elusive Laura is available on DVD. After initially announcing that it would appear in its Studio Classics series and then postponing it, Fox has finally released the film as the studio's first entry in its new Film Noir series. Having previously had the opportunity to see an early version of the DVD, I can report that the final product should fully satisfy people's expectations. Other entries in the first wave of Fox Film Noir are Call Northside 777 and Panic in the Streets. The packaging highlights original poster art and each release is numbered.

Laura

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Laura of course is the stylish 1944 film noir directed by Otto Preminger. The film was based on a book of the same title by Vera Caspary that in itself she had developed from a play called "Ring Twice for Lora". The Fox production resulted from Otto Preminger's urging the studio to buy the property for his use. At the time, the only other interest in it was from MGM who saw it as a source for a B detective movie. The story involves the murder of Laura Hunt and the subsequent investigation by New York police lieutenant Mark McPherson. Chief among the suspects are Laura's close friend and erudite columnist Waldo Lydecker, and fiancé Shelby Carpenter. As McPherson gathers information, like Waldo and Shelby before him, he becomes obsessed with the mysterious Laura. Then he is confronted by the appearance of a woman who claims to be Laura herself.

Initial casting ideas had Eva Gabor and then Jennifer Jones in the title role with the likes of George Raft and John Hodiak as McPherson. Eventually Gene Tierney reluctantly agreed to play Laura after Jones did not show up for work. Dana Andrews lobbied for the McPherson role and apparently through the intercession of Darryl Zanuck's wife, got it in the end. Zanuck also wanted contract player Laird Cregar to play Waldo, but Preminger insisted on a film unknown, who proved to be Clifton Webb, a former Broadway musical performer. Even Preminger had his difficulties before getting the directing job. He had had previous run-ins with Zanuck that had led to Zanuck's refusal to allow him to direct at the studio. For Laura, Zanuck accepted Preminger as its producer only, but after Walter Lang and Lewis Milestone turned down the directing reins and Rouben Mamoulian's initial directing work on the film proved uninspiring, Zanuck reluctantly allowed Preminger to take over.

While Gene Tierney turns in a fine performance as the enigmatic Laura, it is Clifton Webb and Dana Andrews who make this film work. Much attention has always been given to Webb's masterful and memorable film debut. The characterization of the witty, urbane, and caustic literary iconoclast that Webb gives here would shade his work in virtually every film in the rest of his career. Who can forget our first sight of Waldo sitting in his bathtub writing his latest column, or his putdown of Laura in the restaurant when she first approaches him for a product endorsement? Dana Andrews on the other hand is sometimes dismissed as just another leading man, but in Laura, his performance is full of understated confidence. Focus on Andrews' facial reactions during the film and you will realize how much he is able to convey with a subtle glance without having to speak a word. There's no over-dramatization of McPherson's building obsession with Laura, but it's as clear from his unspoken reactions as it is in Waldo's case from his overt inclusion of Laura in every facet of his life. Vincent Price and Judith Anderson also contribute fine supporting performances as Laura's fiancé and her aunt respectively.

The film is beautifully shot by Preminger with thoughtful use of shadow and a roving camera that most effectively comes into play when it attempts to put us into the mind of McPherson as he prowls Laura's apartment trying to understand her life. The film's other positive attribute is its music by David Raksin. Raksin was apparently assigned to the task after the studio chief composer Alfred Newman felt the film was not important enough to devote his own time to it. There were attempts by Preminger and Raksin to get the rights to use Gershwin's "Summertime" for the title tune, but when that fell through, Raksin came up with the tune now so indelibly linked with the film.

Fox's full frame transfer (in accordance with the original aspect ratio) based on a restoration of the film looks very good indeed. The image is sharp and characterized by deep blacks, clean whites and a finely detailed gray scale in between. Shadow detail is excellent and the image exhibits some modest grain. The result is a very film-like experience. Although there are a few minor speckles, I can't imagine anyone being disappointed in this effort. The stereo and mono tracks offer little to choose between them. Both provide clear dialogue free of age-related hiss or distortion and deliver the Laura title song with some degree of presence though no great dynamic range, as one might expect. A Spanish mono track and English and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The supplements are extensive. In addition to the theatrical cut of the film, one can view a slightly extended version that includes a longer montage scene depicting Waldo's early days with Laura. This deleted scene can also be viewed separately. There are two audio commentaries, the best of which is by the reliable film historian Rudy Behlmer. He gives a thorough background on the film's production saga from initial story conception to critical reception with some sense of the film's influence on later films as well. The other commentary is less dense, but also of interest, particularly the remarks on its music aspects by David Raksin (who has since passed away after recording the commentary). Film professor Jeanine Basinger also participates (her comments actually make up the greater percentage of the commentary) and provides some useful perspective on Gene Tierney's contributions to the film. Rounding out the disc are the film's theatrical trailer and good A&E Biography profiles on Gene Tierney (A Shattered Portrait) and Vincent Price (The Versatile Villain). Unfortunately no details on the film's restoration process are provided. Highly recommended.


Mourning Becomes Electra (1947)
(released on DVD by Image on December 14th, 2004)

Eugene O'Neill's six-hour, three-act play "Mourning Becomes Electra" opened on Broadway in 1931, but would not make it to the screen until the late 1940s after an effort to interest MGM in filming it in 1935 with Katharine Hepburn was rebuffed by the studio. The version that was finally shot at RKO in the spring of 1947 bore the stamp of Dudley Nichols as producer and director, at O'Neill's request. The use of Rosalind Russell as Lavinia (Electra of the title) was also apparently a stipulation of O'Neill's selling the screen rights. Based on the "Oresteia" tetrology by Aeschylus, O'Neill's play reveals the complex relationships of the Mannons, a New England family at the end of the Civil War. Patriarch Ezra and his son Orin are returning from war service while daughter Lavinia and Ezra's wife Christine vie for the favours of the mysterious sea captain Adam Brant. Infidelity, murder, and suicide follow, leaving Lavinia and Orin to play out a grim game of control and self-recrimination before Lavinia gets her final reward.

Mourning Becomes Electra

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Much of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the play and that leads to a somewhat stiff screenplay that is purposefully played with exaggerated emoting by much of the cast in order to apply dramatic hyperbole to the story's focus. Unfortunately the result is an experience that never seems to allow the audience to become completely absorbed by the complex tale. We're too often disturbed by the cast's histrionics to see the story as more than contrived melodrama. The efforts of Katina Paxinou as Christine and Michael Redgrave as Orin suffer the most in this regard providing little subtlety in their characterizations, so much so that Raymond Massey (noted for his broadly-drawn characterizations) seems subdued as Ezra. Rosalind Russell does make a favourable impression as Lavinia, and she did receive an Academy Award nomination for her efforts (but lost to Loretta Young for The Farmer's Daughter). Yet, aside from the over-the-top acting, the story has such a succession of juicy plot turns that are so perversely engrossing that everyone ought to experience the film at least once. The Hays Office was obviously so enrapt by it all that it apparently had few quibbles with the result despite the issues of infidelity and incest - generally filmic no-nos at that time.

Nichols' New York premiere version of the first came in at 175 minutes and was then reduced by 16 minutes for its initial road show engagements. Showings were then shorn of a further 38 minutes and that is the version later available on television. Image's DVD release is the 159-minute road show release and for that they are owed a debt of thanks. Unfortunately, the transfer we get is far from pristine. It's full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio, but it's frequently soft and lacking in image detail. Contrast levels are seldom better than fair and modest edge haloes are evident from time to time. Adundant speckles, scratches, and debris are visible. That's a lot to put up with for nearly three hours. The mono sound is adequate in clarity, although there is some background hiss. There are no supplements. Recommended as a rental.


On to Part Two

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