|Classic Reviews Round-Up #61 and New Announcements
Welcome to the latest edition of Classic Coming Attractions.
I've got the usual package of reviews and new release announcements for you, with the new announcements database updated accordingly. The reviews this time include Warner Bros. Big Band, Jazz & Swing Short Subject Collection and Fighter Squadron (both from the Warner Archive); No Time for Sergeants (from WB); Sword of Sherwood Forest (from Sony); Cary Grant: The Early Years (from TCM); Spawn of the North (from Universal/Create Space); and Treasure of Ruby Hills, Yuma, and The Texan (all from Timeless Media Group). There are also reviews of the Blu-ray release of The Music Man from WB and two British TV series from Acorn Media (Poldark: Series 1 and A Mind to Kill: Series 1). I hope you'll enjoy it all.
Back in the heyday of laserdisc and when the Warner Bros. classic library was under the control of MGM/UA, we had the pleasure of the release of two box sets devoted to Vitaphone shorts - Swing, Swing, Swing! (which delivered 45 classic big band and jazz shorts from the 30s and 40s) and Vitaphone Shorts: A 70th Anniversary Celebration (44 shorts delivering a variety of comedy, musical and novelty performances). While some of the Vitaphone shorts have appeared as extras on DVD releases, after 13 years of the DVD era, we finally have a dedicated Vitaphone collection available to us on DVD, or at least on DVDR. It's the Warner Bros. Big Band, Jazz & Swing Short Subject Collection - a six-disc set released through the Warner Archive that contains 63 shorts.
Among them are about three dozen of the shorts contained on Swing, Swing, Swing! and about one dozen of those on the 70th Anniversary Celebration laserdiscs. The shorts are generally each about 8-10 minutes in length. The first disc includes 7 shorts focusing on radio personalities if the early 1930s (Ramblin' Round Radio Row). The second delivers 8 shorts featuring some of the prominent black performers of the time, including several performances by the young Nicholas Bros. that provide a wonderful picture of their early progression as entertainers. The final four discs focus on various orchestras which each perform 3 or 4 numbers, sometimes accompanied by one or more singers and/or dancers. Among those orchestras featured are those of Eddy Duchin, Isham Jones, Johnny Green, Harry Reser, Cab Calloway, Jimmy Dorsey, Larry Clinton, Ozzie Nelson, Artie Shaw, Hal Kemp, Glen Gray, Desi Arnaz, and Stan Kenton. The material in this set provides a mesmerizing time capsule of popular musical entertainment from the early 1930s through the mid 1940s. We get to hear from dozens of talented groups and individuals, some of whom are well known while others have been obscured by the sands of time. Yet the representation here is but a small sampling of the wealth of musical talent that abounded in those times. You find yourself constantly wondering about what happened to so many of the hundreds of performers that make their way across the screen. The DVD set is a treasure to be sampled at will and viewed over and over again, for anyone who has the slightest appreciation for the era and its musical legacy. These are the original music videos and viewed in parallel with music videos of today they put the latter in a sad light indeed when it comes to musical talent. As one might expect, the image quality of the Vitaphone shorts is rather variable. Most do look quite sharp with good contrast, but some of the earliest ones (particularly the Radio Row shorts) are a little ragged and washed out. Speckles and scratches are common, but they don't detract from the viewing pleasure. The mono sound is quite acceptable for the most part. Minor hiss and crackle are apparent on many of the earlier shorts. Highly recommended.
I well remember seeing the Andy Griffiths film No Time for Sergeants on television many years ago and recall it being a pleasurable experience. The film was originally released in 1958, following a successful run as a Broadway play.
Warner Bros. has now made it available on DVD and upon revisiting the film, I found that time has dulled its luster considerably. The concept of a naïve young individual being introduced to military training was not new even back in the 1950s, but 50-odd more years has made the idea even more clichéd thanks to the likes of Gomer Pyle, Private Benjamin, and others. The film's main saving grace is Andy Griffith's portrayal of the back-woods Georgia farm boy who manages to balance a surface naivety with some natural smarts that makes his character still appealing. It's enjoyable to see Don Knotts, but he has what is little more than a cameo as a corporal responsible for one of the air force aptitude tests that Griffith's character is subjected to. Nick Adams scores as a recruit who yearns to be transferred into the infantry. Much less enjoyable are Myron McCormick's stereotypical sergeant and a number of senior officers who are mainly portrayed as witless buffoons. The film also goes on much too long (119 minutes) for its material with a final act that seems unnecessary and un-amusing. Warners' 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation is fairly decent. Sharpness is good, if not quite up to the best classic transfers. There's a fair bit of grain evident, but contrast is good and a nicely-delineated gray scale is evident. The mono sound is in quite acceptable shape. Warners had originally hoped to have some participation from Andy Griffiths in supplements for this release, but that did not transpire. I don't know why, but the result is that there are no extras at all on the disc. If you're an Andy Griffiths enthusiast, this is probably a must buy, but all others should consider a rental first.
People of a certain age grew up with Richard Greene portraying Robin Hood weekly on television in The Adventures of Robin Hood. It was superior series of its kind that lasted from 1955 to 1960 and included in Richard Greene one of the better portrayers of the character on either the small or large screen. One of the outcomes from Greene's tenure in the series was the feature film Sword of Sherwood Forest that was produced by Britain's Hammer Films in 1960.
The film offers mixed blessings. Greene's portrayal of Robin Hood is quite good and he excels particularly in some well-shot archery sequences. It would have been nice to see more of the television series regulars retained for the feature film version, but ongoing characters such as Friar Tuck, Little John, and Maid Marion all have new players. Of them, only Niall MacGinnis as Friar Tuck is really effective. Sarah Branch is a rather bland and uninteresting Maid Marian. At least Peter Cushing provides a juicy portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Director Terence Fisher keeps a fairly tight rein on things, but he's fighting against a script that lacks clarity. It starts off well with Robin and his outlaws harbouring a wounded man that the sheriff wants badly (enough to even offer Robin a pardon if Robin will return the man to him). Apparently the wounded man is somehow related to a plot to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it's never very clear what the motives are of the group wanting the Archbishop dead. The film is only 76 minutes long, however, so the lack of clarity in the film's last third isn't as big or lingering a problem as it might otherwise be. The film is given a widescreen presentation that provides the film with a more epic feel than the material might otherwise suggest. Sometimes, though, that wide image only accentuates the use of some lackluster location choices. The bottom line is that the film does hold the attention for its brisk running time and it's a reasonable time passer if you can't sleep late at night. Sony's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is quite sharp and clear for the most part. There are a few sequences that look a little soft with muted colour, but for the most part fans should be pleased with the results. Mild grain is evident and the image is free of edge effects. The mono sound is in good shape without any distracting hiss or distortion. The only relevant supplement is the original theatrical trailer. A promotional item for other classic Columbia titles coming to DVD is also included. Recommended as a rental.
Cary Grant: The Early Years is the most recent offering of Universal holdings via the TCM Vault Collection. It's a three-disc set containing Devil and the Deep (1932), The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), and The Last Outpost (1935).
All were originally Paramount productions. In Devil and the Deep, Grant is a young submarine officer who's merely fodder for Tallulah Bankhead. Bankhead is a woman emotionally estranged from her insanely jealous husband (played by Charles Laughton in a juicy if at times over-ripe fashion). Grant soon disappears from the film, giving way to another submarine officer (film co-star Gary Cooper) who has a dalliance with Bankhead that eventually leads to a confrontation on the submarine commanded by Laughton. The film is a mere 70 minutes in length and is notable for Laughton's performance as well as some good early sound work on the submarine escape sequences. Its pre-Code nature is particularly evident in its ending with the symbolism of a billiard cue that the Bankhead character buys. Cary Grant doesn't make much of an impression in the film and it's clearly a training opportunity for him. Made a year later, The Eagle and the Hawk shows how far Grant has progressed. He's second billed behind star Fredric March in a World War I air-war tale. March is regarded as an example to new recruits, but his increasing disillusionment with the war puts him at odds with Grant's brash new recruit. The film (which is the best of the three in the collection) has a tragic ending with an appealing twist that elevates it above many similar WW1 films of the time. March's work is exemplary, while Grant looks much more comfortable on the screen and evidence of the charismatic image he would later project is beginning to appear. Grant is back in uniform in 1935's The Last Outpost, an effort that seems to be almost two different films. The first half is an interesting and well-directed story about a British undercover agent (Claude Rains) during World War I who must direct the movement of an Armenian tribe friendly to the British out of the way of the Kurds. Grant plays a British officer freed from the Kurds by Rains and taken along on the Armenian tribe's trek. The second half of the film finds Grant's character recuperating in an Egyptian hospital where he falls for his nurse (Gertrude Michael) who turns out to be Rains' wife. When Rains returns from action unexpectedly, the resulting love triangle has predictable results. Once again, Grant is paired with one of the great British actors of the time, but his part is much more substantial than in Devil and the Deep (in fact, he's first billed) and three years' more experience shows as he delivers an assured performance. Despite initial suggestions that the TCM Vault offerings from Universal would be on MOD discs, the releases to date have been on pressed discs and that continues to be the case with Cary Grant: The Early Years. Each film has its own disc and is presented full frame as originally released. The transfers are all quite good as is typical of Universal's efforts on its early Paramount holdings. The Eagle and the Hawk looks the best of the three, but the issues on the others (some light scratching and inconsistent sharpness) are not particularly concerning. The mono sound is quite good on all three titles. Supplements include an introduction to The Eagle and the Hawk by TCM's Robert Osborne and a selection of stills, trivia, and production info for all three films. Recommended.
Spawn of the North is an exciting tale of salmon fishing and piracy in Alaskan waters during the early years of the 20th century.
Henry Fonda and George Raft star as childhood friends who later find themselves on opposite sides. Fonda's character is on the side of right, while Raft's sides with a Russian skipper (Akim Tamiroff) intent on stealing fish from honest fishermen's traps. Raft manages to redeem himself at the end in an effective sequence that involves ice calving into the sea from an Alaskan glacier. The story is somewhat melodramatic, but it's serviceable enough with good acting throughout a cast that also included John Barrymore, Dorothy Lamour, Louise Platt, and Lynn Overman. The film is expertly orchestrated by action director Henry Hathaway who mixes in some fine location footage from Alaska and the coast of southern California. The film would have been even more effective in colour as originally planned. Spawn of the North was originally produced by Paramount and remade by the studio in 1954 as Alaska Seas with Robert Ryan. It has been released as a MOD disc by Universal as part of the studio's Vault Series in conjunction with Amazon's Create Space. The image (full frame as originally released) is crisp and fairly clear with modest grain evident. Blacks are deep and contrast is good. Minor speckling and the odd scratch are apparent. The mono sound is clear. There are no supplements. Recommended.
Fighter Squadron, a 1948 Warner Bros. film, has many of the hallmarks of a top-grade production - Technicolor, direction by Raoul Walsh, music by Max Steiner, a decent cast headed by Edmond O'Brien and Robert Stack, but it's ultimately let down by a weak script and several clichéd characters.
That's unfortunate because some exceptional actual colour photography of the World War 2 war in the air was unearthed by the studio and used to good effect. That footage is in fact the film's strongest suit. The story line is set in a U.S. airbase in wartime England and involves a hotshot flyer (O'Brien) of P-47s who becomes his squadron's commanding officer and has to temper his own nature for the good of the men now under his command. Stack plays a flyer who comes in conflict with O'Brien when he wants to marry his girlfriend contrary to O'Brien's policy that flyers serving under him be single. Most of the film plays out quite predictably which would be fine given the pedigree, except that it's saddled with an annoying subplot concerning a philandering sergeant (Tom D'Andrea) that's riddled with eye-rolling and clichéd dialogue and situations. We also have to put up with an overripe performance from Henry Hull as a cigar-chomping general with a constant glint in his eye. Overall, the film is an amiable timepasser, but without the aforementioned annoyances, it would have been above average. Look for Rock Hudson in a small role that was his movie debut. The Warner Archive MOD presentation is quite nice. The full frame image is crisp and bright, exhibiting good colour fidelity. There's little evidence of mis-registration and skin tones appear accurate. The mono sound is in good shape. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended as a rental.
Classic Blu-ray Review
The Music Man, one of the early promised titles for a high definition release, is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Bros. And a joyous release it is!
The almost 50-year old musical stands up beautifully mainly because Robert Preston's work in the lead role is so boisterous and appealing. Preston plays Prof. Harold Hill, a con-man who comes to River City, Iowa intent on fleecing the populace by promising to form a boys band. He faces plenty of opposition from the town fathers and initially the disapproval of the town librarian (Shirley Jones) too. He is able to win her over eventually, but after falling in love with her, he still faces being run out of town unless he can prove that his approach of learning to play instruments by "thinking the music" can work. The film came about after a lengthy run on Broadway (1375 performances), success there mainly due to Preston and to Meredith Willson's music that included the marvelous "Till There Was You" and the infectious "76 Trombones". Some of the other Broadway performers were retained (Pert Kelton, Susan Luckey, etc.), but there are newcomers too such as Ron Howard and Buddy Hackett. Familiar faces such as Hermione Gingold, Harry Hickox, Paul Ford, Charles Lane, and Mary Wickes abound. The film is long at 151 minutes, but it never seems to drag due to the wealth of exuberance and melody throughout. Warners' 2.4:1 transfer drawn from the Technirama original image is excellent. Colour fidelity is superb with deep blacks and excellent contrast. The image is sharp and nicely detailed without signs of digital manipulation. Modest grain is evident. The DTS-HD sound is a revelation. Dialogue and lyrics are equally clear. The musical numbers fill one's room strongly with excellent separation across the front and minor but effective use of the surrounds. The "76 Trombones" number fares particularly well. The supplement package is limited, but does include participation by Shirley Jones in a short introduction to the film and as host of a 22-minute making-of documentary made in 1998. A theatrical trailer is also included. Highly recommended.
It's very interesting the way perception changes. The front and back covers of Timeless Media Group's DVD release of the 1955 western Treasure of Ruby Hills implies equal billing for Zachary Scott and Lee Van Cleef.
In reality, Scott was clearly the star of the movie with Cleef having no more than a very brief supporting role as a hired gunfighter. Obviously, Van Cleef's later success in spaghetti westerns has granted him greater familiarity to modern movie fans and thus more of a draw than Scott who died more than 40 years ago. I've always been a big fan of Zachary Scott's work. His best years were 1944-1949 while under contract to Warner Bros. where he starred in the likes of The Mask of Dimitrios, Mildred Pierce, The Unfaithful, and Flaxy Martin. He tended to specialize in smooth but ultimately unsavory urban males, so it was s surprise to see him mounted up for South of St. Louis in 1949. He was quite effective in the western role though and would do three or four other ones as his career gradually waned through the 1950s. Treasure of Ruby Hills has a good Louis L'Amour story as source material in which Scott plays a man on the brink of going down an outlaw path, but decides to go straight when he finds himself in the middle of a conflict between three opposing factions (led by the likes of Barton MacLane and Dick Foran with enforcers such as the aforementioned Van Cleef and Gordon Jones). For a film that offers the suggestion of wide-open spaces with "Ruby Hills' in its title, its rather restrictive sets lend a claustrophobic feel with an almost noir-like air. Perhaps that's why Scott fits into his part quite well. He does get good support from the cast that includes several veteran western players such as Foran (who slid into bad guy roles smoothly after his early days as a B western star) and Raymond Hatton (always one of the better sidekicks in B westerns). The film's action sequences aren't particularly inspired, but are competently executed under the veteran hand of director Frank McDonald. Timeless Media's DVD presentation of the Allied Artists release is presented full frame although the film may well have been shown at 1.85:1 theatrically. In any event, the framing on the DVD at least looks quite reasonable. The image is fairly sharp but shadow detail is only average. The mono sound is workable. There are no supplements and the disc menu offers no scene selections. Recommended for Zachary Scott fans and as a rental for other western fans.
Yuma is an unpretentious made-for-TV western that stars Clint Walker and features a fine supporting cast of well-known faces.
Walker was a busy actor at Warners in the late 50s and early 60s on Warner TV series, particularly Cheyenne where he played the lead character Cheyenne Bodie. His motion picture work in the 1960s was highlighted by a role in The Dirty Dozen, but he turned to TV work again in the early 1970s and continued in that vein for much of the rest of his career. In Yuma, he plays town marshal Dave Harmon and becomes involved in a struggle with a powerful rancher (Morgan Woodward) who believes his brother to have been killed by Harmon. Complicating matters is a local businessman (Barry Sullivan) who's cheating the local Indian tribe out of the cattle due them under an agreement with the government - an agreement administered through the local army post. The plot is a fairly conventional one, but there enough little twists to provide some freshness to it. The resolution also offers a bit of a surprise. Aside from his sheer physical presence, Walker delivers a strong performance in the lead role. In addition to Woodward and Sullivan, Edgar Buchanan and Peter Mark Richman are among the familiar faces that contribute positively too. The film was shot on location in Old Tucson with additional work at Paramount in Hollywood. Director Ted Post stages several action scenes effectively and overall, the film provides a comfortable diversion over a brisk 73-minute running time. Unfortunately, Timeless Media's DVD presentation is less than stellar. The image (full frame as originally shot) is rather soft and even fuzzy at times. Colours are subdued and image detail particularly in night-time sequences is lacking. The mono sound is workable. There are no supplements. A rental at most for western fans.