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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #45 and New Announcements

I had hoped to get more reviews completed for this latest version of Classic Coming Attractions, but rather than delay further in getting the latest announcement news to you, we’ll go with a shorter roster of reviews for now and hope to make it up in succeeding columns. The releases covered this time out are two Bette Davis collections appearing in honour of her centenary – The Bette Davis Collection: Volume Three (six titles from Warner Brothers) and The Bette Davis Collection (five titles from Fox) – and six Paramount pictures being released by Legend Films (Rhubarb, Houdini, Money from Home, Papa’s Delicate Condition, The Skull, and The Busy Body). I hope to get two more classic columns to you over the next three to four weeks in order to catch up, one being a focus on westerns in honour of the annual spring spate of western releases. Note that the classics release database has been updated to reflect the latest announcements.


Classic Reviews

In honour of what would have been Bette Davis’s 100th birthday, Warner Bros. has rounded up six more choice titles for the Bette Davis Collection: Volume Three.

Bette Davis Collection: Volume Three

This set doesn’t have any of the top two or three Davis films as obviously they’ve previously been released, but it does have six of her most-requested films and as a whole is to my mind the best Davis set yet made available by Warners. Watch on the Rhine, In This Our Life, and The Old Maid are the best of the six with The Great Lie and All This, and Heaven Too not far behind. Deception is the weakest overall but not for lack of a fine Davis performance. Watch on the Rhine is a film that never fails to move me, featuring a superb performance by Paul Lukas (Best Actor Oscar) as the anti-fascist fighter. Davis has what almost seems like a secondary role as Lukas’s supportive wife, given its low-key nature, but as the film develops the strength of character and dedication to her husband’s cause that Davis conveys in her performance is powerful indeed. The scene between her and Lukas as he prepares to leave for Europe is one of wartime films’ finest moments. In This Our Life gives us bad Bette in spades – how about stealing her sister’s (Olivia de Havilland) husband (Dennis Morgan), trying to pin a hit-and-run killing on an innocent man, and wishing her uncle (Charles Coburn), who’s just been given six months to live, dead when he doesn’t jump to help her avoid the same hit-and-run rap. This is the sort of role that Davis relished and excelled at, and she makes the whole melodramatic concoction mesmerizing to watch. The film is directed with verve by John Huston, then just coming off The Maltese Falcon. Look for a short unbilled cameo by Walter Huston in a bar scene (though not with Humphrey Bogart as sometimes reported) and revel in Max Steiner’s lush score. The Old Maid has Bette aging from a young wide-eyed girl who has a daughter by a Civil War soldier and a gray-haired spinster who through a tortuous chain of events allows her sister (Miriam Hopkins) to raise her daughter (Jane Bryan) while she stays in the background pretending to be her own daughter’s aunt. The real delight of the film is to see Davis and Hopkins (a notorious scene stealer) squaring off against each other, and the passage of time is very effectively handled through costume and hair style manipulation without resorting to age wrinkles that sometimes don’t look that realistic. The Great Lie has both Bette and concert pianist Mary Astor in love with aviator George Brent. When Brent is apparently lost in a plane crash, Astor who is pregnant with his child agrees to give the baby to Bette to bring up. Then Brent is found alive and returns to resume his life with Bette. Davis continues to bring out the best in her supporting cast; here Astor delivers a Best Supporting Actress. George Brent provides his typical supporting work here (as he also did in In This Our Life and The Old Maid), an effective foil for Bette but never threatening to dominate the screen in their scenes together. All This, and Heaven Too is a long (almost 2½ hours in length) historical drama that finds Bette playing governess to three young children in the Paris home of Duc de Praslin (Charles Boyer) and his jealous wife (Barbara O’Neil). The developing relationship between Duc and governess leads to a violent and uncertain ending. The film is acted with a significant degree of nuance by both Davis and Boyer, but suffers somewhat from its length partly due to an unnecessary framing story. The music by Max Steiner is a particular asset. Deception reunites the three stars– Davis, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains – and the director, Irving Rapper, of Now, Voyager in a love triangle that never really catches fire. Davis is particularly good as the pianist who separated by war from her great love, cellist Henreid, becomes the lover of composer Rains. When Henried returns after the war, she hopes to take up with him again while hiding her past with Rains from him. Unfortunately for the film, Henreid spends too much time looking grim while playing the cello and never really conveys any reason for Davis’s grand passion for him. Meanwhile, that excellent actor Claude Rains proves once again that he was best utilized in supporting roles. Rains’ performance is excessively flamboyant even allowing for the nature of his character. One wants this film to be a winner, but when only one of the three principals is really on, the film is merely a diverting entertainment rather than the home run that one would have liked. Each film in the set is housed in its own standard keep case (signaling their availability individually as well as in the set) and sports a “Warner Night at the Movies” suite of extras. All films are presented full frame as originally shot and they look very fine indeed. The Old Maid is slightly weaker in terms of image sharpness than the others, but otherwise all are of a piece – clear, very good contrast, deep blacks, and very good image detail. The images are all quite clean too, with only minor speckling and the odd scratch in evidence. Mono sound tracks are offered on all, and each has been nicely cleaned up so that dialogue is clear and virtually free of hiss. The music by Max Steiner (and by Erich Wolfgang Korngold on Deception) fares well throughout. In addition to the “Warner Night at the Movies” offerings on each disc (typically one or two cartoons, one or two shorts, a vintage newsreel, and two trailers), audio commentary is also included on each of Watch on the Rhine (by film historian Bernard F. Dick), All This, and Heaven Too (by film historian Daniel Bubbeo), Deception (by film historian Foster Hirsch), and In This Our Life (by film historian Jeanine Basinger). All are worth hearing from both an information and presentation standpoint. Very highly recommended. For those interested in such things, the film trailers presented in this set include ones for the following Warner Bros. titles not yet available on DVD: Mission to Moscow, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, The Strawberry Blonde, Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet, A Stolen Life, and Desperate Journey. I’m hoping that all will make their way to us courtesy of Warners over the next few years.

Fox has its own centenary tribute to Bette Davis – The Bette Davis Collection, which includes five titles: All About Eve (1950), Phone Call from a Stranger (1952), The Virgin Queen (1955), Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and The Nanny (1965). Each title is also available separately.

The Bette Davis Collection

Two of them have been previously released by Fox so let’s get them out of the way first. All About Eve is appearing for the third time from Fox, on this occasion in a two-disc edition. The film already looked very good in its previous Fox Studio Classics line release and the improvement manifest in its new transfer is minimal. There is a wealth of supplements including two audio commentaries, with the major additions to what appeared in the previous release being four new featurettes mainly focusing on writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. These are interesting, but I’d suggest anyone who already has the Studio Classics version has little need to upgrade. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte has appeared on DVD once before, again as a Studio Classics entry. This time, the image seems somewhat softer than before and the aspect ratio has been changed from 1.66:1 to 1.85:1. I’m not sure which is actually correct, but the latest incarnation seems reasonably framed and generally looked quite pleasing to my eye. As far as supplements go, there are several new ones including some fine reminiscences by Bruce Dern and a making-of featurette. The audio commentary by Glenn Erickson that accompanied the previous release has been dropped. I think dedicated fans of the film will want to have this new version if only to judge the transfer for themselves. Others can rest content with the version previously released. For Bette Davis fans, the best of the other three films in the box set is The Virgin Queen, a 1955 CinemaScope production. This was Davis’s second film portrayal of Queen Elizabeth I, the previous one being in Warners’ The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939, with Errol Flynn). The story in The Virgin Queen revolves around Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) and his efforts to get the queen to give him ships to sail to America. A fairly talkie affair with only a few brief bursts of action, the film is an intelligent entertainment that seems to capture the language and feel of the age quite effectively. Davis easily steals the show as she spares no effort to create the look and mannerisms of the queen, but Todd delivers a worthy supporting effort too. Also worth noting is superior work by Joan Collins as Raleigh’s romantic interest. The film’s production values are high, with the costuming and sets sumptuously mounted and CinemaScope used to advantage by the studio’s go-to widescreen director Henry Koster. Fox’s 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer looks superb with beautifully reproduced colour and a sharp clean image that’s about as good as standard DVD gets. The Dolby 4.0 sound is very pleasing with some modest separation evident although surround effects are virtually non-existent. A very thorough making-of documentary is included along with an isolated score, trailer, and various pressbook/poster/stills galleries. Phone Call from a Stranger is a bit of a surprise as an inclusion in the set given that Davis has only a small role in the latter part of the film. The film itself starred Gary Merrill, Davis’s husband at the time and partly the reason for her taking the role, and concerned a group of people including Merrill’s character involved in a plane crash. Merrill takes on the task of visiting the next of kin of several of the crash victims, one of whom is Davis. The film’s episodic nature is somewhat reminiscent of several short film compilations of the time – Quartet, Trio, O. Henry’s Full House. It is an unassuming film, but one that never fails to satisfy with a very fine performance by Merrill as the story’s common thread and the welcome presence of Michael Rennie. Davis’s work is first rate in her touching sequence as is that of two other main characters who become crash victims – Shelley Winters and Keenan Wynn. The DVD offers a full screen presentation (as originally released) that is very pleasing. Image detail is excellent and modest grain conveys a nice film-like look. The mono sound is clear with no hiss. Supplements include a restoration comparison, a theatrical teaser and trailer and pressbook/poster/still galleries. The Nanny was a film Davis made in Britain for Hammer during a somewhat fallow period of her career. A film somewhat in the same gothic genre vein of her Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte films, The Nanny finds Davis playing nanny to a young boy who may or may not have been responsible for the drowning death of his sister. Davis gives a very convincing performance that effectively masks the true nature of her character, and her work is nicely complemented by that of her two young co-stars, William Dix and Pamela Franklin. The story’s mounting suspense is well modulated by director Seth Holt and the result is a superior piece of entertainment. The Nanny is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that seems reasonably framed although 1.66:1 tended to be the preferred ratio for British releases of the time. The image is sharp and nicely detailed. The mono sound is workable enough, but is characterized by some crackling and hiss. Supplements include a restoration comparison, theatrical trailer, and various galleries. The Bette Davis Collection is recommended.

Recently, Legend Films licensed a number of Paramount titles for release on DVD. They are now available directly from Legend and will be available widely in two waves, one in early June and the other in early July. Given Paramount’s reluctance to release its own classic product, ventures like this may be the only way we’ll ever get access to such titles, so the endeavor warrants our support provided the product is fully up to standard. The initial waves of titles (others may follow, depending I imagine upon how well this first package sells) include films from the early 1950s through the early 1990s. Of direct interest to classic fans will be such items as Rhubarb (1951), Houdini (1953), Money from Home (1953), Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963), The Skull (1965), The Busy Body (1967), Villa Rides! (1968), and Those Daring Young Men on Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969). For these releases, Legend has access to the best elements that Paramount has for these titles and the DVD presentations are characterized by proper aspect ratios and are anamorphically enhanced where appropriate. There are either no supplements or at most the original theatrical trailer. Note that despite Legend Films’ background in colourization, none of these presentations is so affected. Any of the films that appear in colour do so because they were filmed that way originally.

Rhubarb

Let’s begin with Rhubarb, a 1951 production that bears comparison with other comedy films with a baseball background made around the same time – It Happens Every Spring, Angels in the Outfield, and even Kill the Umpire. Rhubarb is actually the name of a cat that inherits a fortune including ownership of baseball’s Brooklyn Loons. Ray Milland finds himself custodian of the cat and consequently the fortune and struggles to deal with the fate of the team, the disinherited daughter of the cat’s deceased owner, and his own bride to be who turns out to be allergic to cats. The situation leads to considerable confusion and some laughs, but Rhubarb himself, even for cat lovers, has little charisma as an animal performer so the film never generates the same warmth of the other baseball films listed above. Ray Milland is always worth watching though, and here abetted by Jan Sterling as his fiancée with support from such reliables as Gene Lockhart and William Frawley, makes the film an amiable time passer. The black and white film, presented full frame, offers a nicely detailed image though at times a little soft. Some speckling is evident. The mono sound is clear and there are no supplements. Recommended as a rental for a dreary afternoon when your local ballgame has been rained out.

Houdini

Houdini is a George Pal produced 1953 biography of magician and escape artist Harry Houdini, starring Tony Curtis in the title role with fine support from Janet Leigh as Houdini’s wife. At the time Curtis and Leigh were married in real life. The film benefits from that as the pair provide a very appealing on-screen pairing as well. The characters are likable and played with considerable enthusiasm, easily compensating for the fictionalized biography. The story also benefits greatly from the use of Technicolor and the efficient work of workhorse studio director George Marshall keeps the film moving along nicely. The full frame DVD presentation offers very vibrant colour although there are a few instances of mis-registration issues. Some speckling is evident from time to time. The mono sound is fine and the theatrical trailer is included. Recommended.

Money from Home

Money from Home is a 1953 Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis vehicle that’s an average outing for them. Based on a Damon Runyon story sporting the usual collection of comic gangsters with catchy monikers, the film is a handsome-looking production that features a real grab bag of a plot including the aforesaid gangsters, an animal hospital, an Arab prince and his entourage, steeplechase horse racing, and the usual romantic subplot and singing opportunities for Martin. Too many of the film’s gags seem a little obvious and forced, but the film’s finale has some good slapstick comedy moments so that the film ends leaving a good taste in one’s mouth. The production was Martin and Lewis’s first in colour and the full frame DVD presentation delivers it with reasonable fidelity if a little muted at times. The sound is clear; there are no supplements. An easy recommendation for Martin and Lewis fans, but others should try a rental.

Papa's Delicate Condition

Papa’s Delicate Condition, a period comedy made in 1963, is a tour-de-force for Jackie Gleason. He plays a father who loves a drink seemingly as much as his family, a condition that has begun to alienate him from his wife and elder daughter, but not yet his youngest. The film comprises a loving series of vignettes of family life that are at times funny and at others sad. The blend of humour and pathos is recognizable as one of Gleason’s strengths for anyone who has seen his television sketch work of the 1950s and 60s. The film also won an Academy Award for the song “Call Me Irresponsible”, performed with great panache by Gleason. Providing solid support are Glynis Johns as Gleason’s long-suffering wife and Charlie Ruggles. Look out also for the likes of Charles Lane, Elisha Cook Jr., Murray Hamilton, and Don Beddoe. Anyone who likes Life with Father or Meet Me in St. Louis will find this much in the same vein although your enjoyment level will be determined by your tolerance for Gleason who can be an acquired taste. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image looks just fine – nicely detailed with good colour fidelity in the main. There are some soft passages, but nothing to detract from one’s enjoyment. The mono sound is quite adequate and the theatrical trailer has been provided. Recommended.

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