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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Some Wyler and Keaton You May Have Overlooked

In this latest edition of Classic Coming Attractions, we look at three early films directed by William Wyler and a recently discovered Buster Keaton-Fatty Arbuckle comedy, all of which have been released on DVD in the last little while. And of course, we have the latest round-up of recent announcements of classic films on DVD.

William Wyler

Sometimes referred to as America's greatest director and certainly among a handful of its finest ones, William Wyler fashioned a career of directing excellence stretching over 45 years. A winner of numerous awards himself including three Best Director Academy Awards (for Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Ben-Hur) and one of the AFI Lifetime Achievement Awards (the 4th one, awarded in 1976 when they still meant something), Wyler's greatest achievement was his ability to draw the best from his performers and co-workers. Films that he directed won 38 Academy Awards from 127 nominations, half of which were in the best picture, director, and actor categories. No other director comes close on this particular yardstick.

Wyler began his career in silent westerns at Universal, graduating from two-reel to five-reel efforts during the years from 1925 to 1928. His first non-western silent feature was 1928's Anybody Here Seen Kelly? and in 1930, he directed his first sound feature, Hell's Heroes. Wyler remained at Universal until 1935 when he signed a contract to work with Samuel Goldwyn - an arrangement that continued until 1946 although interrupted by a couple of loan-outs and a break for wartime service. The Goldwyn period is well-represented on DVD and includes Dodsworth (1936, DVD from MGM), Jezebel (1938, DVD from WB), The Little Foxes (1941, DVD from MGM), The Memphis Belle (1944, DVD from VCI), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, DVD from MGM). Come and Get It (1936), Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Westerner (1940) were previously available on DVD from HBO, but are now out of print (MGM currently holds the home video rights). While none of these DVDs are exactly inspiring in terms of supplementary content, all the titles are very fine films and contain quite watchable transfers, with Dodsworth and The Best Years of Our Lives probably being the best of the bunch in that respect. Significantly missing in action from this period so far are Dead End (1937, Goldwyn, MGM holds rights), The Letter (1940, WB, WB holds rights), and Mrs. Miniver (1942, MGM, WB holds rights).

In the postwar years, Wyler moved over to Paramount until the mid-1950s after which he free-lanced for the last 15 years of his career. Available on DVD are Roman Holiday (1953, DVD from Paramount highly recommended), Friendly Persuasion (1956, Allied Artists, DVD from WB and recommended), The Big Country (1958, UA, DVD from MGM - a disappointment compared to the previously-issued special edition laserdisc), Ben-Hur (1959, MGM, DVD from WB highly recommended), The Children's Hour (1961, UA, DVD from MGM), The Collector (1965, DVD from Columbia recommended), and Funny Girl (1968, DVD from Columbia highly recommended). Missing in action from this period are The Heiress (1949, Paramount holds DVD rights), Detective Story (1951, Paramount holds rights), Carrie (1952, Paramount holds rights), The Desperate Hours (1955, Paramount holds rights), How to Steal a Million (1966, Fox holds rights), and The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970, Columbia holds rights).

But let's return to Wyler's early Universal period - the reason being the somewhat unheralded release by Kino last fall of The William Wyler Collection. This collection represents a collaboration between Wyler's daughter Catherine Wyler, Universal Pictures, and Kino and consists of three films that have not previously appeared on home video in any form plus a documentary on Wyler produced by his daughter. The documentary (Directed by William Wyler) is a marvelous (but at less than an hour, too brief) 1986 profile that draws heavily on a lengthy interview conducted with Wyler just three days before his death in 1981, supplemented with numerous interviews with other directors and with actors who had worked with him - Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Barbra Streisand, Audrey Hepburn, Laurence Olivier, John Huston, Billy Wilder, and Charlton Heston, to name a few. Paired with it is the 1929 film The Love Trap - a part silent, part talkie starring Laura La Plante and Neil Hamilton. The story involves a young dancer who finds her marriage in jeopardy when her husband's uncle uses his knowledge of her past to try to break up the marriage. Directed briskly and affectionately by Wyler, the film provides excellent insight into the state of Wyler's craft as he began to embark on sound films. Two of these early sound films are the subject of the other two discs in the collection. One of them - Counsellor at Law (1933) - stars John Barrymore in one of his finest sound portrayals as a New York lawyer who successfully juggles rich unworthy clients with poor worthy ones until one day a past legal indiscretion threatens to ruin him. Based on a successful 1931 stage play of the same title that starred Paul Muni in the title role, the film rips along with lots of snappy pre-Code dialogue and a raft of finely drawn characters featuring the likes of Bebe Daniels, Doris Kenyon, Isabel Jewell, John Qualen, Melvyn Douglas, Mayo Methot (one of Bogart's wives), Thelma Todd, and even future director Vincent Sherman. The third disc in the collection is The Good Fairy (1935), which to our great fortune stars the wonderful Margaret Sullavan. Those who are aware of her work (she's also available on DVD in The Shop Around the Corner [1940, MGM, DVD from WB]) will know whereof I speak. Surely there was no more charming and beguiling an actress working in Hollywood in the 1930s. In The Good Fairy, she teams with Herbert Marshall and Frank Morgan in a sparkling romantic comedy written by Preston Sturges. Willful and winsome at the same time, by all accounts, Sullavan made the actual filming process like pulling teeth, but the results were worth it and remain so almost 70 years after the film first appeared.

The source material for all three of these films is in pretty reasonable shape despite the lack of any particular restoration efforts. Kino has done a fine job overall on the image transfers. The Good Fairy looks very good for a film of this vintage - clean, crisp and virtually free of age-related debris, but Counsellor at Law lags behind in quality somewhat with a couple of jump cuts and some noticeable edge haloes. The Love Trap is the least of the three but still quite watchable. Sound is acceptable with only minor hiss evident. A nice selection of supplements including extensive photo galleries, a detailed Wyler filmography, and 16 theatrical trailers is spread over the three discs. All three are highly recommended.

Buster Keaton

We are fortunate indeed to have so much of the work of the major silent comedians available to us on DVD. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy are all well-represented in terms of their silent shorts and features. Their sound films are another story, with only Chaplin being well-represented on DVD. (Sadly, virtually none of Harold Lloyd's films, silent or sound, have yet to appear, despite promises to the contrary over the past couple of years.)

Buster Keaton's silent career encompassed two phases. The first involved his collaborative work on a series of 15 shorts starring and directed by Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle during the 1917-1920 period. These are available on DVD from Image (The Best Arbuckle Keaton Collection which gathers together 13 of the shorts) and Kino (Arbuckle and Keaton: The Original Comique/Paramount Shorts in two volumes, each of which contains five shorts). You can't go wrong with any of these discs. The two missing shorts from these collections are the lost A Country Hero (1917) and the lost-until-recently The Cook (1918). We'll return to the latter in a moment.

After the Arbuckle period, Keaton seized control of his own destiny by scripting, directing, and starring in a superb collection of shorts and features over the next eight years. Among the best of the features were Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), Seven Chances (1925), The General (1926), and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1927). All of this material and more is available on DVD in the highly-recommended 11-disc box set The Art of Buster Keaton issued by Kino.

In 1928, Keaton found himself working for MGM and although his first effort there - The Cameraman (not on DVD) - was up to his usual standard, studio interference diminished his efforts and his early sound films were increasingly a waste of his talents. After leaving MGM by the mid-1930s, he worked in small roles in films for a variety of companies for the rest of his life. Few of the results were worthy of his talents. Those of them available on DVD make up an eclectic collection indeed. They range from the sublime (Chaplin's Limelight [1952, DVD from Image now out-of-print] and the Canadian-produced The Railrodder [1965, DVD from Image]), to the interesting Forever and a Day (1943, RKO, DVD from Image), to the ridiculous How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965, DVD from MGM). A more complete list is beyond the scope of today's column, but can be viewed at the Internet Movie Data Base.

Returning to Keaton's silent period, it is a distinct pleasure to be able to report on The Cook and Other Treasures - a DVD from Milestone Film and Video, distributed by Image Entertainment. The Cook (1918) is one of the Arbuckle-Keaton shorts believed lost until 1998 when an incomplete print was discovered at the Norsk Filminstitutt. Then in 2000, additional footage was acquired by the Nederlands Filmmuseum. In 2002, when Milestone was planning a DVD of The Cook in conjunction with the Norsk Filminstitutt and George Eastman House, the availability of the Nederlands footage was brought to Milestone's attention and the two sets of footage were blended to give an almost complete version of the short. It's that version that we have on the new DVD. The 22-minute short is one of the funniest of the Arbuckle-Keaton collaborations, with Arbuckle as the chef of the Bull Pup Café and Keaton as one of the café's waiters. There are some great sight gags involving Keaton catching some of Arbuckle's creations and a Salome-like dance, and Luke the Dog gets a chance to attempt to save the pretty cashier when she's accosted by a patron played by Al St. John. Later, during their off-work hours, all the characters get entangled again in an adjacent amusement park. The other treasures of the disc title are another long-lost Arbuckle short (this time without Keaton) also unearthed at the Norsk Filminstitutt and entitled A Reckless Romeo (1917), and a 1920 Harold Lloyd short Number, Please?. Both shorts take place principally at amusement parks, maintaining the location theme of the disc. In A Reckless Romeo, Arbuckle is a married man whose philanderings get caught on film unknown to him and soon land him in trouble when they're shown at the local theatre. In the well-scripted Number, Please?, Harold Lloyd attempts to win back his girl and gets himself in all sorts of problems at an amusement park, including a great sequence of gags involving the use of three public telephone booths. While all three shorts are entertaining and worth your attention, the Lloyd one is the best of the lot in terms of pacing and overall amusement.

For two shorts that were considered lost, The Cook and A Reckless Romeo both look quite respectable. There is the inevitable amount of scratches and speckles with occasional jump cuts, but the results are certainly workable. Colour tinting is a nice plus. Number, Please? (not tinted) looks somewhat cleaner and sharper. The latter short retains its original English intertitles while new ones have been created for the former two. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo scores by Philip Carli are appropriate for the material. The disc's supplement consists of the raw footage of The Cook from both archival sources which the disc suggests can be downloaded for creation of one's own restored version. Also included, through DVD-ROM access, is a very informative 23-page press kit.

Whether a longtime Keaton fan or new (lucky you!) to this marvelous comedian's silent work, you'll do yourself a favour by adding The Cook and Other Treasures to your collection. Obviously, Arbuckle and Lloyd fans won't go wrong by doing so either.

New Classic Film DVD Announcements

We kick off this update with news from Columbia. The forthcoming Bogart film In a Lonely Place (1950), which along with The Harder They Fall (1956) is the best of the recent flurry of Columbia's Bogart titles, has been restored for DVD and its release on March 13 will include a new making-of documentary - an improvement over the bare-bones nature of the other releases. On April 29, Columbia will release the under-rated Burt Lancaster film The Swimmer (1968) and Cary Grant's last film appearance - Walk, Don't Run (1966), a remake of 1943's The More the Merrier (when are we going to see that on DVD, by the way?). May 6 will see King Rat (1965, with George Segal and Tom Courtenay) and the latest in The Ray Harryhausen Collection - It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). A week later, Columbia joins what seems to be becoming an annual May parade of war DVDs from the major studios, with Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942, with Paul Muni), Hellcats of the Navy (1957, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis [Reagan]'s only film appearance together), and The War Lover (1962, with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner). May 13 will also see the latest Three Stooges collection The Three Stooges: Go Around the World in a Daze.

Image Entertainment kicks off April with two silent releases on the 4th - a double bill of The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1905) and From the Manger to the Cross (1912), and Erich von Stroheim's Merry-Go-Round (1923). April 22 will bring the Russian Destiny of a Man (1959, directed by Sergei Bondarchuk). The same month is also understood to see the delayed release of the four-disc set of Bondarchuk's War and Peace (1968). The two 1939 Gene Autry releases in March (South of the Border, Rovin' Tumbleweeds) are just the first of ten Autry films that Image will bring to DVD this year. Future releases (all originally Republic productions) include Melody Ranch (1940) and Home on the Prairie (1939) on May 20th, Bells of Capistrano (1942) and Sioux City Sue (1946) on July 15th, Gaucho Serenade (1940) and Robin Hood of Texas (1947) on September 9th, and Shooting High (1940) and Heart of the Rio Grande (1942) on November 11th. Image is also believed to be releasing in May, on behalf of Milestone Films, a collection of Mary Pickford films. Titles include: Suds (1920), Heart o' the Hills (1919), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), Poor Little Rich Girl (1917), and Through the Back Door (1921).

Fox's May 6th release in its Studio Classics series - Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955) - will feature a new 2.55:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer; restored English 2.0 stereo and English, French and Spanish mono tracks; new audio commentary by Michael Lonzo, Sylvia Stoddard and John Burlingame; two MovieTone News clips (Audience Awards Presentations and Photoplay Awards: A Hollywood Highlight); a restoration comparison; biographies; and theatrical trailers. It appears that The Grapes of Wrath (1940) may no longer be in Fox's plans as its June release in this series. The Song of Bernadette (1943) is now showing up on retailers' future release lists as the June 3rd entry, with no indication of what may have happened to The Grapes of Wrath. Other planned releases in the series seem to be unchanged. Fox has slated four classic titles for release on June 3rd, including The Flight of the Phoenix (1965, with James Stewart), The 300 Spartans (1962, with Richard Egan), The Long Hot Summer (1958, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward), and From the Terrace (1960, also with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward).

Warner Brothers has indicated that the highly anticipated special edition of King Kong (1933) will not be released this year. The process of fully restoring and remastering the film has been more time-consuming than anticipated, thus necessitating the delay. On the other hand, the special edition release of Giant (1954) appears to be a 'go' for this coming summer, although no official announcement has yet been made.

May is war and westerns month for MGM. On the 20th, it will release 633 Squadron (1964, with Cliff Robertson and George Chakiris), Attack! (1956, with Jack Palance, directed by Robert Aldrich), Battle of Britain (1969, with the usual British all-star cast), Mosquito Squadron (1969, with David McCallum), Operation Amsterdam (1960, with Peter Finch), War Hunt (1962, Robert Redford's film debut), Zulu (1964, with Stanley Baker), Duel at Diablo (1966, with James Garner), Five Guns West (1955, directed by Roger Corman), The Indian Fighter (1955, with Kirk Douglas, directed by Andre de Toth), The Ride Back! (1957, with Anthony Quinn), Terror in a Texas Town (1958, directed by Joseph H. Lewis), and The Unforgiven (1960, with Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn, directed by John Huston).

Add Shenandoah (1965) to the list of James Stewart westerns being released by Universal in May.

The next round of Walt Disney Treasures expected in December 2003 is likely to include material focused on the wartime cartoons and on Donald Duck.

Criterion has announced that it will release a box set of the five Hitchcock films it currently has available. The set will be entitled Wrong Men & Notorious Women: Five Hitchcock Thrillers 1935-1946 and include The 39 Steps (1935), The Lady Vanishes (1938), Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), and Notorious (1946), available together at a reduced price.

Anchor Bay will release the long-awaited British films, Dead of Night (1945) and Queen of Spades (1949), on May 6th.

The twelve Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films originally released by Universal in the 1940s were restored by the UCLA preservation team (with partial funding from Hugh Hefner) and are expected to be released on DVD by King World (a component of CBS) in the near future. There has been no official announcement so far, however.

Hallmark has indicated informally that they will be releasing Laurel and Hardy sound films in black and white (not colorized as some people feared) on DVD this coming summer. Again, there has been no official announcement. Hallmark releases through Artisan.

VCI has indicated that the DVD release of the 1945 serial Secret Agent X-9 has been postponed from late February for at least a couple of months. No new date has been specified.

Delta Entertainment is releasing Charlie Chaplin, Volumes 1-12 on March 25th. (These discs will include nearly 60 original shorts in all, plus the documentary His Life and Work.)

Columbia House is making episodes of television's Woody Woodpecker Show available on DVD. Each disc contains four half-hour shows and it is expected that there will be ten discs in total. That means upwards of 100 original Walter Lantz cartoons in all. The cartoons are understood to have their opening Universal logos and all credits intact. Of course, the discs are only available directly through Columbia House.

Marengo Films recently released a DVD double bill of The Shadow Strikes (1937) and International Crime (1938), both starring Rod La Rocque as The Shadow. Forthcoming, but with no announced date, is a double bill of The Fighting Westerner (1935, aka Rocky Mountain Mystery, with Randolph Scott) and Boots and Saddles (1937, with Gene Autry).

Finally, following up on rumours in the last column, Home Vision will release Robert Flaherty's Man of Aran (1934) and Louisiana Story (1948) on May 20th. And Jean Vigo's L'Atalante (1934) is scheduled for release on April 1st from New Yorker Video.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


Barrie Maxwell - Main Page


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