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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #32 and New Announcements

Welcome to another edition of Classic Coming Attractions. This time I have review coverage of some 15 releases (including 29 films total), from Flicker Alley (Phantom), Universal (State of the Union, This Island Earth), Warner Bros. (Warner Bros. Pictures Tough Guys Collection, Kings Row, Ronald Reagan Signature Collection), VCI (So Ends Our Night, Hammer Film Noir Double Feature Collector's Edition), Sony (All the King's Men, Stooges on the Run), Paramount (Rawhide: The Complete First Season, The Wild Wild West: The Complete First Season), A&E (Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman: The Movies), and AC Comics (King of the Texas Rangers, King of the Rocket Men). I also have the usual coverage of new announcements.

I'd like to take the time here to mention another column in the works. It's likely going to be called HDC - High Definition Classics, and it will cover exactly what it says - classic films available on HD DVD in high definition, 1080p video. We already have several of such films in release, including The Searchers, Grand Prix, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Dirty Dozen with others on the way (Spartacus, The Professionals, for example). The new column will review such titles, provide new announcement information, and likely appear staggered with future Classic Coming Attractions columns. I expect to allow it to have a little more latitude in coverage, however, so my reviews will also extend to more current titles that I think will appeal to classic enthusiasts. I'll have more to say about this soon.

In the meantime, on with my regular Classic Coming Attractions coverage.


Reviews

We start off the reviews this time with a 1922 German silent film - F.W. Murnau's Phantom, now available on DVD courtesy of Flicker Alley. Flicker Alley is a small company that focuses on silent releases and it's already made available two impressive presentations - The Garden of Eden and Judex, with more to come. Phantom is based on a popular novel by Gerhart Hauptmann that was being serialized in a Berlin periodical at the time its film rights were acquired.

Phantom

It relates the events of the fall from grace of Lorenz Lubota, a city clerk but also aspiring poet (wonderfully portrayed by Alfred Abel [Metropolis, Dr. Mabuse]) who is knocked down in the street by the horses and carriage of a beautiful young woman. So entranced does he become with her that he risks his reputation and freedom to pursue her, distressing his family and alienating himself from his friends in the process. The "phantom" of the title is the image of the woman that drives Lorenz. Director F. W. Murnau is better known for the likes of Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Sunrise, and Tabu, for much of his output of the early 1920s is either lost or only available in fragments, so the arrival of Phantom is welcome indeed. The film is a very accessible production, sporting a fine screenplay by Thea von Harbou (one can see why the story on which it was based would have been so popular in its day) and characterized by both expressionistic effects and impressionistic images of reality. The sequences in which Lorenz gives in to his fate and parties on the town provide a wonderful example of Murnau's capabilities in this regard. They also exhibit some fine special effects, the background to which is explored more fully in the disc supplements. Phantom is a pleasure to experience and its two-hour running time flies by. Aiding in this immeasurably is an outstanding DVD presentation by Flicker Alley in partnership with the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation, based on the restoration and reconstruction of an original 1922 negative. In addition to a new speed-corrected NTSC film transfer, considerable attention was paid to the restoration of the film's original tints and the end result was married to a new orchestral score by Robert Israel. The combination is exceptional for a film of this vintage. Some speckles and scratches are present as one would expect, but the image is otherwise nicely defined revealing fine image detail. The restored tinting is particularly striking. Israel's score complements the images very appropriately. Supplements include a very informative 12-page essay on the colour tint identification and restoration, presented as a disc case insert, a 15-minute audio essay on the film's production and artistry, very extensive cast and crew biographies, and a gallery of historical documents pertaining to the production. Highly recommended.

State of the Union

In 1948, Frank Capra was in the process of selling Liberty Films (the independent company he had set up with George Stevens and William Wyler) to Paramount. He had had a mixed success with his lone Liberty foray - It's a Wonderful Life, and then had gotten cold feet when it came to independent production. He pushed hard for the sale, with George Stevens being the most resistant to it. The final arrangement with Paramount called for Capra to make three films as a contract director. Part of the mix in the negotiations over the sale of Liberty was an arrangement that Capra made with MGM to film the Broadway play State of the Union with stars Spencer Tracy and Claudette Colbert. This became Capra's first project under the Paramount umbrella. State of the Union should have been a major success. After all it had Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in it (Hepburn replaced Colbert after the latter had a disagreement with Capra); it had the MGM production facilities at its disposal; Capra was able to utilize his usual range of top Hollywood character actors; and he was filming a successful play. From nearly any other director, the film would have looked like quite a winner, but from Capra it seems somewhat ponderous and uninvolving. The usual spark between Tracy and Hepburn isn't quite there. The general theme of an apolitical man being courted to run for the presidency is in keeping with Capra's earlier triumphs, but there's never the same sort of excitement about a reluctant protaganist finally taking control of things that there was in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or even It's a Wonderful Life. Compared to the emotion of the climaxes in the latter three films, the climactic set-piece in State of the Union seems stale. Still there are things to admire about the film including a superior performance by a young Angela Lansbury as a controlling newspaper owner, the generally sharp dialogue that abounds, and the contemporary comments on politics that continue to ring true today. Universal by virtue of its ownership of the pre-1949 Paramount sound catalog now controls the film and has released it on DVD in a typically bare-bones version. It does, however, look terrific with a sparklingly sharp transfer sporting a very nice grayscale and modest film grain. Speckles and debris are minimal. The sound is also in great shape. Aside from perhaps 1961's Pocketful of Miracles, this is probably the last Frank Capra film worth a recommendation.

This Island Earth

Unlike Forbidden Planet (1956) or The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), some science fiction films don't age well, and one of them is 1955's This Island Earth. I well remember seeing the film several years after its original release at the downtown Toronto Biltmore theatre when that grind house showed three films continuously all day every day. At the time, for a kid steeped in science fiction as I was, This Island Earth with its wonders of the planet Metaluna seemed like the best thing since … well, the latest story by Isaac Asimov in Galaxy magazine. Now the film's plot seems barely tolerable (Earth scientists [Rex Reason, Faith Domergue] first agree to work at a secret lab on an even more secret experiment and are then enlisted by Jeff Morrow to help save the planet Metaluna which is under attack) and the wonders of Metaluna are decidedly second-rate, despite the special effects that were apparently 2 ½ years in the making. As for the Metaluna mutant that terrorizes our heroine, apparently design inspiration only extended to the part of its body above the chest. Universal has released the film on DVD in a full frame format. The film was apparently shot that way, but was also intended to be presented theatrically at a 2.0:1 ratio. That appears a little wide for the content and the then-becoming standard of 1.85:1 seems more appropriate. In any event, the transfer itself seems quite pleasing with pretty accurate looking colour and a reasonably sharp image. It's certainly not in the same league as other top three-strip Technicolor transfers though, although it is an improvement over the previous Image release. The only supplement is a battered-looking trailer. I did note that the disc's back cover notes provide an inaccurate description of the plot. Given my reaction to This Island Earth now, I can't get too exorcised over Universal's efforts, but there are many who still revere the film and for them, this release will be a disappointment.

Warner Bros. Pictures Tough Guys Collection

One of the real pleasures of 2005 was the Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection and the studio has now followed it up with the equally attractive Warner Bros. Pictures Tough Guys Collection. The set includes six titles comprising three James Cagney appearances (City for Conquest, Each Dawn I Die, "G" Men), two each from both Humphrey Bogart (Bullets or Ballots, San Quentin) and Edward G. Robinson (Bullets or Ballots, A Slight Case of Murder), and one from George Raft (Each Dawn I Die). Every one of these films provides tremendous entertainment value. City for Conquest, "G" Men, and Bullets or Ballots are personal favorites, but I came away from the other three with renewed appreciation for their merits as well. The pleasures of each are many. In City for Conquest, you get a bravura performance by Cagney as a reluctant boxer who pays a terrible price for supporting his brother, Ann Sheridan co-starring as Cagney's girl (enough said!), and fine supporting work by Anthony Quinn as a slimeball dancer. Warners has managed to find and restore footage originally cut from the beginning of the film - a very welcome result even if one can see why the footage was cut originally. Cagney always maintained that he was unsatisfied with the film, feeling that the heart of the novel on which it was based (by Aben Kandel) was cut out of the screenplay, but it's always looked impressive to these eyes. "G" Men is one of the early examples of studio response to the Production Code with its increased emphasis on downplaying the heroic presentation of gangsters - a charge thrown at many Hollywood gangster films of the early 1930s. This time Cagney's on the side of the law, playing an FBI agent who goes after the gang of crooks who murdered his college friend - all loosely based on the federal pursuit of the real-life John Dillinger gang. Barton MacLane (he never spoke when shouting would do) is very effective as the gang leader. Note that the source material used includes the 1949 prologue (featuring Warner contract player David Brian) that introduced the film when it was originally reissued to theatres to commemorate the FBI's 25th anniversary. Each Dawn I Die finds Cagney incarcerated in prison after being framed for killing three people due to drunken driving. George Raft co-stars as a long-time felon who eventually holds the key to getting Cagney released. Although the film's resolution is rather contrived, the performance by Cagney is a memorable portrayal of a man trapped in an increasingly hopeless situation. On the other hand, despite George Raft's good work in the film, his role is routine and one wonders why he agreed to this particular one when he would turn down much superior material in The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra and Casablanca, even if they were tough guy roles from which he was trying to disengage himself. Bullets or Ballots was Edward G. Robinson's "G" Men, as he portrays a detective who works undercover to smash a crime ring. Chief among the antagonists are Humphrey Bogart as a short-fused racketeer (with a great moniker - Bugs Fenner) and the always effective if loud Barton MacLane. The film's other main benefit is the wonderful Joan Blondell who makes some handy coin running a neighborhood numbers game. The film slams along in a staccato fashion echoing typical Robinson dialogue and never fails to bring pleasure. Robinson is also front and centre in A Slight Case of Murder where he is an illicit beer baron who goes straight after prohibition ends. The film is an amusing farce based on a Broadway play by Damon Runyon and Howard Lindsay, and Robinson seems to be enjoying himself immensely as he effectively spoofs his Little Caesar character. One of the film's great joys is the large and talented group of character actors who appear - Allen Jenkins, Edward Brophy, Harold Huber, Ruth Donnelly, John Litel, Margaret Hamilton, George E. Stone, among others. Robinson's success in his role and his pleasure in doing it prompted him to accept similar sorts of material in 1940's Brother Orchid and particularly 1941's Larceny Inc. San Quentin is Humphrey Bogart's chance to shine outside of the Cagney or Robinson limelight and he does a fine job of it even if top billing goes to Pat O'Brien. Made in 1937, the film comes squarely within Bogart's 1936-1940 period of supporting roles in A films and co-starring or leading roles in minor A or B films. In San Quentin, he plays a small-time hood who is sent to the notorious prison where yard captain Pat O'Brien tries to help him go straight. Ann Sheridan, then receiving much the same level of film roles as Bogart, co-stars as a nightclub singer and Bogart's sister. The film is a modest but entertaining example of the big-house genre of gangster films, actually incorporating some real footage of the prison into the story. Warners has outdone itself in the presentation of the films. Each receives its own keepcase (reflecting the fact that each title can be purchased separately as well) and in addition to the main feature includes on its disc an audio commentary, the film's trailer, a Warner Night at the Movies package (coming attraction trailer, vintage newsreel, a short, and a cartoon), either one or two addition shorts (in most cases, the same year's Warner blooper reel), and a new featurette on a different aspect of the gangster film. The video transfers of the main features are all well done, offering substantial improvement over the previously available laserdisc versions, and characterized by crisp images, good gray-scale delineation, and deep blacks. Only "G" Men exhibits lesser quality than the others with an image that looks soft at times. Speckles and minor print damage are evident at times on all the films, but the effect is minor. The audio is in good shape on all films with only occasional instances of hiss. The care that Warner Bros. has put into this release, the intrinsic quality of the films themselves, and the massive amount of high-quality supplementary material included makes the box set an easy candidate for top set of the year. Very highly recommended.

Kings Row

Anyone who has corresponded with me will likely have noticed that my signature line quotes one of the lines from Kings Row, the magnificent 1942 Warner Bros. film that stars Ann Sheridan, Ronald Reagan (in what is often referred to as his best role), and Robert Cummings, and features one of the most memorable of classic film scores (by Erich Wolfgang Korngold). I first saw Kings Row nearly 40 years ago and was entranced, and viewings too numerous to mention over the succeeding years have not dimmed its glory for me. For those unaware of the film's background, it's based on the bestseller of the same title by Henry Bellamann. The book is a lengthy melodrama set in a small Midwestern American city at the turn of the century with a plot that manages to include insanity, sadism, incest, suicide, and murder. The town of Kings Row advertises itself as a good place to live in, but as the story progresses its protaganist Parris Mitchell who grows up there gradually learns that it is far from what it purports to be. The story's themes suggested that the book was unfilmable in early 1940s Hollywood, but after protracted wrangling with the Production Code Administration (then enthusiastically enforced through its director Joseph Breen), Warner Bros. managed to come up with a screenplay that retained the novel's spirit, but masked some of its more lurid themes. Any discerning viewer will still have a pretty good idea of what's really going on, however. The film's new DVD release comes with mixed feelings. I am of course glad to see it on disc and it does look very nice, but it hasn't received quite the sort of Now Voyager standard of image transfer that I would have hoped for and that it deserves. Nor has it been accorded any particular attention in the supplementary material that accompanies it - no audio commentary (I would have done one!), no documentary, nothing directly relevant to the film itself other than the theatrical trailer - merely a contemporaneous short and cartoon. The release is to me personally an opportunity sadly missed. I suspect too that although the disc can be purchased separately, many stores will only carry it buried in the Ronald Reagan Signature Collection, which means that many people may not be tempted to see something truly special. (That reaction, by the way, should not be construed as a putdown of that collection, which in many ways is a superior effort, containing five films of consistently high entertainment value. More about it below.) Anyway, take my advice and avail yourselves of a copy of Kings Row and see some superior work by Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan, a short but very effective performance by the always reliable Claude Rains, and an impressive supporting cast that includes Charles Coburn, Judith Anderson, Betty Field, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Harry Davenport.

Ronald Reagan Signature Collection

The appearance of Ronald Reagan in films like Bedtime for Bonzo and Hellcats of the Navy seems to have damned Reagan's acting career for many viewers, but in fact he appeared in more than a handful of fine films (for Warner Bros. mainly) in a film career that began in 1937 with Love Is on the Air and ended in 1964 with The Killers. Never a really major star, Reagan always appeared relaxed on the screen. He was a reliable supporting player or co-star in A pictures and lead in B films during the late 1930s and early 1940s before taking on more major leading roles in the years after his war service. The Ronald Reagan Signature Collection recently released by Warner Bros. provides three examples of the latter (The Hasty Heart, The Winning Team, Storm Warning) and two of the former (Knute Rockne All American and Kings Row). Originally Warner Bros. productions all, they provide a high measure of entertainment and two are true signature roles for Reagan (George Gipp [the Gipper] in Knute Rockne, and Drake McHugh ["Where's the rest of me?"] in Kings Row). The merits of Knute Rockne and Kings Row are well documented, but the other three films in the set are lesser known. In The Winning Team, Reagan portrays the famous pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in a dramatically robust depiction of his life. Doris Day provides strong support in the thankless role of Alexander's wife. The Hasty Heart is a filmization of the play by John Patrick set in a jungle hospital. There, recuperating soldiers from several different countries (including Reagan as the Yank) are asked to ease the final days of a doomed Scottish soldier (a fine performance by Richard Todd who received a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his efforts). Storm Warning is perhaps the best of the three. Reagan plays a district attorney frustrated by the lack of cooperation of local townspeople in bringing the local Klan chapter to justice for a senseless murder. The story is taut and thoroughly gripping, sporting a top-notch performance by Ginger Rogers as a woman who witnesses the murder. Steve Cochran provides a typically fine effort as the husband to the sister of Rogers' character (Doris Day once again). Warner Bros.' efforts in delivering the titles to disc have yielded very pleasing image transfers. The oldest title (Knute Rockne All American) is marginally the weakest effort with some softness and image fluctuation in evidence, but is still overall quite pleasing. The other four titles are much of a piece - film-like transfers with very good gray scales, excellent image detail, and minimal debris and speckling. The mono sound on all is in good shape. I've already commented on the supplements with Kings Row above. Much the same remarks apply to the other titles although for The Winning Team and Storm Warning, only theatrical trailers are included. Only The Hasty Heart sports an audio commentary - in its case by director Vincent Sherman and Reagan biographer John Meroney (who does most of the talking). Recommended.

So Ends Our Night

A very welcome addition to DVD is VCI's release of the 1941 wartime drama So Ends Our Night. The film is based on Erich Maria Remarque's novel "Flotsam" and follows the shifting fortunes of three German refugees whose passports have been taken from them, forcing them to be continually on the move as one country after another deports them. The three refugees are Josef Steiner (Fredic March) a conscientious German who cannot abide the Nazi regime and is forced to leave his wife (Frances Dee) behind when he escapes from Germany, Lugwig Kern (Glenn Ford) a 19-year-old stripped of his passport because he is Jewish, and Ruth Holland (Margaret Sullavan) a student chemist who is also Jewish. The film is an earnest and honest depiction of such refugees in prewar Europe and is very well acted by all three principals. March typically handles such roles with conviction and authority and So Ends Our Night is no exception, while Sullavan is luminous as always in her gentle yet creative acting style. The plight of these individuals is persuasively conveyed by the film although one's emotional connection to them is weakened by an at times rather ponderous approach to the material. Overall though, the film holds one's attention well and its resolution is satisfying. The supporting cast is littered with familiar faces (Anna Sten, Erich von Stroheim, Leonid Kinskey, Roman Bohnen, Sig Ruman, etc.) and the score by Louis Gruenberg is quite uplifting at times (it received an Oscar nomination). VCI's disc presentation is workable, taken as it appears to be from a re-release print attributable to Favorite Films Corporation. The image suffers from varying degrees of softness punctuated by instances of edge effects. There are plenty of speckles and scratches and a few abrupt cuts. The film is gripping enough, however, than one tends to forget the image deficiencies after a while. The sound is characterized by significant hiss, but is generally intelligible. Supplements consist of short biographies and trailers for four VCI releases (but not one for So Ends Our Night). Perhaps reflecting the still generally anti-war sentiment of much of the American populace, the film was not received particularly well upon its original release in early 1941. The passage of time and the benefit of hindsight have heightened the strength of its message, however. Recommended despite the disc's image deficiencies.

Hammer Film Noir Double Feature Collector's Set

Another welcome development is VCI's steady output of material deriving from its recent agreement with Kit Parker films to release a number of films from that company's catalog on DVD. The latest offering is the Hammer Film Noir Double Feature Collector's Set. In 1950, Britain's Hammer Films arranged with American independent producer Robert L. Lippert to cooperate on the production of low-budget crime dramas that would be made in the United Kingdom. Lippert would send over a Hollywood star on the down-side of his or her career or a promising newcomer to headline the film and the rest of the cast would be filled out with British character actors. Terence Fisher, a top director at Hammer, was assigned to many of the resulting films which numbered over a dozen during the first half of the 1950s. Six of these films are available in the three-disc Collector's Set, packaged two to a disc. Each double feature can also be purchased separately and more releases are anticipated in the future. The Collector's Set is a good deal because you're essentially getting three double feature discs for the price of two purchased individually. It's also a good deal because although none of the films are worldbeaters, all are at least modestly entertaining and offer at least something of interest to the crime or noir enthusiast. Those of the latter persuasion should note, however, that most of the titles have but marginal qualifications for film noir classification, usually by virtue of a femme fatale angle or a character with a murky past. The titles, all from 1952-1954, are Bad Blonde (with Barbara Payton) paired with Man Bait (George Brent); Stolen Face (Paul Henreid, Lizabeth Scott) paired with Blackout (Dane Clark); and The Gambler and the Lady (Dane Clark) paired with Heat Wave (Alex Nicol). Man Bait (Brent as a book dealer blackmailed by Diana Dors in her screen debut; Raymond Huntley has a juicy portrayal as a store employee), Stolen Face (Henreid's a plastic surgeon in a melodrama with thematic ties to another Henreid noir, Hollow Triumph; Lizabeth Scott is excellent in a double role), and Blackout (Dane Clark tries to find out if he's really married to a beautiful heiress) are the best of the lot. As far as the disc presentations are concerned, all are more than acceptable considering the obscurity of these titles. There are of course instances of scratches and speckles and some look softer than others, but on the whole, the titles exhibit good contrast and pretty good image detail. Similarly the mono sound is quite workable. There's some noticeable hiss on Stolen Face and Man Bait, but otherwise nothing to be concerned about. Supplements include trailers for some of the titles plus other VCI releases and short audio essays by author Richard Roberts on each title and on film noir in general. Recommended.

Rawhide: The Complete First SeasonDr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The MoviesThe Wild Wild West: The Complete First Season

This column outing's nod to westerns includes three releases of material that appeared on TV - Paramount's Rawhide: The Complete First Season, A&E's Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Movies, and Paramount's The Wild Wild West: The Complete First Season. All three releases are appearing in conjunction with CBS Video. Seeing Rawhide again almost 50 years after it first appeared on CBS in 1959 is a pleasant surprise. The show holds up remarkably well despite the much grittier approach to filming westerns that has generally characterized the intervening years. It of course is most famous for being part of Clint Eastwood's early career, as he played the series' second lead - the character of Rowdy Yates - behind lead Eric Fleming (trail boss Gil Favor). The series' premise was that of a group of cowboys shepherding a cattle drive out of Texas to the northern cattle markets. Each week's program found the cast getting embroiled in some incident along the way (hence the titling of each episode - "Incident on, of..."). This approach allowed wide latitude in plot lines and the writers took full advantage with many interesting and sometimes offbeat stories. Rawhide had a good share of western action (and at least as realistic as any TV western of the time), but the key to its success (it lasted for 8 seasons) was well-developed regular characters and the comfortable interplay between them. Supporting Eastwood and Fleming were Sheb Wooley (Pete Nolan), Paul Brinegar (Wishbone), Steve Raines, Rocky Shahan, and James Murdock. Season One had 22 episodes and all appear in Paramount's 7-disc release. The material appears to be uncut and is not time-compressed. The full frame images are in fairly good shape. There's certainly speckling and debris, but the images are for the most part quite clear and reasonably sharp. There is some grain in evidence. The mono sound is quite legible with only some minor hiss at times. The only supplements are some brief production notes accompanying each episode, and a cursory Clint Eastwood text biography spread out over the 7 discs. There is also a bonus episode that the box notes state is from the second season, although the IMDB lists it as the final episode of season one. Rawhide: Season One is recommended to all western enthusiasts. On the other hand, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Movies is strictly for ardent fans of the Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman TV series. The series ran for 6 seasons from 1993-1998 and then there were two made-for-TV movies - Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Movie, in 1999, and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman: The Heart Within, in 2001. The series was always viewed as a very family-oriented one with strong emphasis on family values and learning lessons about life. The two movies carry on the tradition with stories that focus on family (the kidnapping of Dr. Quinn's daughter in the first and a trip to Boston where Dr. Quinn's mother is suffering with an ailing heart in the second). The stories are heart warming if predictable, but there's little dramatic tension, particularly in the latter. The films are somewhat episodic belying their TV heritage and the settings are far too pretty for the real west. Jane Seymour, often referred to as the queen of the miniseries for her frequent appearances in the like in the 1970s and 80s, is very appealing in the title role. On disc, the films are presented full frame as originally broadcast. The Heart Within is somewhat the better-looking of the two with a bright, crisp image; its predecessor looks a little softer and somewhat grainy at times. Both titles offer stereo sound, but it doesn't deliver much beyond what one might expect from a good mono track. Supplements consist of some photo galleries and brief cast biographies. If you're looking for supplements with your TV fare, The Wild Wild West: Season One delivers quite nicely with an audio commentary on the pilot episode, various audio interviews, photo galleries, episode intros, and assorted other material. The show itself is celebrating its 40th anniversary since first going on the air and has endured decently (even surviving a bloated 1999 feature film version with Will Smith and Kevin Kline). It reflected a strong theme of the mid-1960s - spy stories, made popular by the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming and their filmizations at the time. The Wild Wild West blended this theme with the still-popular western genre and added in elements of comedy and the supernatural to create a rather unique series. Its chief character was Secret Service agent James T. West (Robert Conrad) who operated out of a nicely-equipped train in the American southwest during the post-Civil War years. Along with his partner Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) who was a master of disguise and gadgetry, West smoothly handled an imaginative range of problems threatening the still-fragile republic. Numerous guest stars appeared as his various nemeses, but the most well-remembered of them was Michael Dunn as Dr. Miguelito Loveless who appeared in some ten episodes over the series' four-year run. Forty years later, the series still provides good entertainment although it tends to seem slower moving and less inventive than it did originally. Paramount presents the first season's 28 episodes (all titled "The Night of...") on seven discs and they look very nice - crisp, clear with just modest speckling and odd bits of debris. Robert Conrad was one of the reasons for the series original success and his contributions in the way of audio introductions and a commentary are a key reason for this DVD set's attractiveness. If I had a choice between this and the Rawhide set, I'd go for the latter strictly on the basis of superior program content, but if you're a real fan of The Wild Wild West, you won't be disappointed by this initial seasonal offering.

King of the Texas RangersKing of the Rocket Men

The DVD fate of the many wonderful Republic serials controlled by Paramount and now back in Lionsgate's hands is a continual topic of debate for enthusiasts. In the meantime, various titles do manage to pop up from various public domain specialists. I don't know what the real legalities are for specific titles, but AC Comics seems to feel that they're up for grabs. Two of their most recent releases, in DVD-R, are King of the Texas Rangers and King of the Rocket Men. The serials themselves are both winners, although the former is the better of the two. Made in 1941 during the heyday of Republic serials, King of the Texas Rangers doesn't lag due to repetitive cliffhangers and padded plot, a failing of too many western serials. It's aided in this partly because it is one of those wartime western hybrids involving a plot dealing with enemy agents where the trappings of the old west are blended with more contemporary settings involving cars, trucks, oil rigs, etc. Surprisingly too, its star - football star Slingin' Sammy Baugh - is quite serviceable in the title role. This serial has all the key Republic ingredients - plenty of action, good cliffhangers, a fine cast (Duncan Renaldo, Neil Hamilton, Pauline Moore, Roy Barcroft, Kenne Duncan, Jack Ingram, and Kermit Maynard), direction by the serial A-team (William Witney and John English), the usual good special effects work by the Lydecker brothers, and a rousing score by Cy Feuer. King of the Rocket Men dates from 1949 and is one of the best of the later Republic serials. In it, Tristram Coffin plays the bullet-helmeted and jet-backpack-wearing Rocket Man who combats the mysterious Dr. Vulcan intent on world domination. Special effects, again courtesy of the Lydeckers, are a key part of this serial's success along with great stunt work (courtesy of Dale Van Sickel, Tom Steele and David Sharpe), and another fine score. The Rocket Man concept would be dusted off by Republic in two later serials (Radar Men from the Moon, Zombies of the Stratosphere), but neither were up to King of the Rocket Men's standard. The AC Comics efforts are serviceable. The serials are each presented on two discs, six chapters to a disc. The full frame (correctly presented) images are generally soft and image detail is fair at best. I was able to compare the DVD-R of King of the Texas Rangers with my laserdisc version and the laserdisc was slightly sharper with better contrast. There was also substantially more hiss on the DVD-R than on the laserdisc. I had no laserdisc version of King of the Rocket Men for comparison, only a VHS copy. The DVD-R is an improvement on the VHS, being not so dark and offering better image detail. Supplements include reproductions of lobby cards and serial trailers on King of the Rocket Men, and serial trailers and a chapter of the serial Jesse James Rides Again on King of the Texas Rangers. It's nice to have both of these serials on DVD-R, but we still await definitive DVD releases from Paramount/Lionsgate who control whatever original source material still exists. Pending that, the AC Comics releases are worth seeking out. They're available on-line at accomics.com.

All the King's Men

Five years ago, Columbia cared enough about its classic films to actually issue some of them on DVD under the heading Columbia Classics. Many of the releases at the time showed some inspiration and actually offered some good supplements, but even then there were exceptions. Unfortunately 1949's Best Picture Oscar winner - All the King's Men - was one of the latter. The film received a decent transfer - reasonably sharp although with some inconsistency, but sporting a fair share of speckles, scratches, and other debris. There was a very modest set of supplements including two pages of production notes on the disc insert, the theatrical trailers plus a couple of bonus trailers, and some short filmographies of the director and cast - all hardly a package worthy of a Best Picture winner but at least something. Now, Sony Pictures (which has more fully imposed its corporate stamp on the Columbia product) has used the Sean Penn remake of the film as a reason to release the original once again. Unfortunately it seems to think even less of the title than five years ago. Not only do we not get a new transfer, but the previous meager set of supplements has been dropped entirely in favour of a five-minute clip from and trailer for the remake. If you haven't got the film on DVD, it is worth having for a bravura if slightly one-note performance by Broderick Crawford and an engrossing story of power that corrupts, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Robert Penn Warren. But you'd be better off getting the original DVD release if you have the choice. If you already have it, of course there's no reason whatsoever to upgrade.

Stooges on the Run

Sony also continues to treat its Three Stooges shorts with contempt. Reportedly the studio is planning to release the shorts in chronological sets perhaps beginning in 2007, but in the meantime, it's foisting collections of four shorts on the market each colorized as though that adds some value to them. The latest release is Stooges on the Run, containing four of the Stooges best efforts from the Curly years: Dizzy Doctors (1937), Calling All Curs (1939), Disorder in the Court (1936), and Pop Goes the Easel (1935). All of these are available in previous Stooges collections when at least we got six or seven shorts for our money without space taken up for colourized versions, and Disorder in the Court is available from about a hundred sources because of its public domain status. Sony claims the material is "fully restored and remastered in High Definition" and they do look quite presentable in B&W with only slight imperfections in evidence (although I didn't take the time to compare them with previous releases). One can toggle between the B&W and colour versions easily by using the "angle" button on one's remote. You might laugh harder at the colour versions, but only because of the sometimes odd colour choices and the unrealistic look of skin tones. They say that colourization has advanced substantially over the past two decades and that may be so, but when it comes down to it who cares. The films were originally made in black and white, and costuming and lighting was selected to make the most of that medium. On that basis, no amount of colourization can ever look appropriate no matter how much research goes into trying to select the right colours. Sony ought to invest its resources in getting all the Stooges shorts out quickly and properly instead of in needless gimmicks.


New Announcements

Virtually no news of releases beyond the end of 2006 has yet surfaced, so this round-up of new announcements is a real grab bag of material - a few bits and pieces from the larger studios and various tidbits from smaller outfits. I hope you enjoy it. The Classic Coming Attractions Database has been updated as usual and sources for this edition include studio press releases and websites, personal contacts, internet newsgroups, online retailers, and dvd news sites (The Digital Bits, Davis DVD, the Home Theater Forum, DVD Times, TVShowsonDVD, among others).

AC Comics has a line of DVD-R releases featuring serials and some westerns that it believes are in the public domain. Recently added to its available serial titles are the Republic outings King of the Texas Rangers and King of the Rocket Men (see reviews above), and coming soon are G-Men Vs. the Black Dragon (1942, coming September 28th), Son of Zorro (1946, coming in December), and Manhunt in the African Jungle (1943, originally Secret Service in Darkest Africa and an obvious inspiration for Raiders of the Lost Ark, coming in January 2007). Other releases planned are Trigger Jr. (a superior 1950 Roy Rogers Republic outing in Trucolor), as well as the double bill Return of Dracula (1958)/ Carnage of Dracula (1964) [coming in December], TV Space Heroes (a collection of five episodes of the likes of Space Patrol, Captain Video, and Tom Corbett Space Cadet; coming in January 2007). Also in the pipeline are Enemy from Space and The Creeping Unknown.

All Day Entertainment's American Slapstick collection is now set to appear on November 21st via Image. It will be a three-disc set, presently scheduled to include Caught in the Rain (C. Chaplin, 1914), Laughing Gas (C. Chaplin, 1914), The Submarine Pirate (Syd Chaplin, 1915), Cupid's Rival (Billy West, 1917), The Bond (C. Chaplin, 1918), Golf (Larry Semon, 1922), Lizzies of the Field (Billy Bevan, 1924), Heavy Love (1926), Uppercuts (Jack Duffy, 1926), Beauty and the Bump (Perry Murdock, 1927), Reckless Rosie (Frances Lee, 1929), Luke's Movie Muddle (Harold Lloyd, 1916), Pay Your Dues (Harold Lloyd, 1917), The Non-Skid Kid (Eddie Boland, 1922), Sold at Auction (Snub Pollard, 1923), Smithy (Stan Laurel, 1924), and Forgotten Sweeties (Charley Chase, 1927). Note that Submarine Pirate will include audio commentary by All Day's David Kalat.

Classic Media will release The Dick Tracy Show: The Complete Animated Crime Series on September 26th. The 4-disc set will include every episode of the classic 1960s series in the original full frame.

Criterion's latest email newsletter has dropped a hint about a future Boris Karloff release. I would suspect that this refers to the long-anticipated Corridors of Blood (1963) and The Haunted Strangler (1959). If this is what the hint refers to, we're probably looking to early 2007 for the street date.

Flicker Alley, which has just released its fine disc of F.W. Murnau's Phantom, reports that it expects to release three Rudolph Valentino films in early 2007 - The Young Rajah (1922), Moran of the Lady Letty (1922), and Stolen Moments (1920). The company was instrumental in arranging their recent premieres on TCM.

Fox's forthcoming SE of Miracle on 34th Street (due November 21st) will include the original B&W and colorized versions of the 1947 film, audio commentary, a featurette on Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, the 20th Century-Fox Hour of Stars version of the story, and an AMC Backstory featurette on the film. Fox will finally release The Charlie Chan Collection: Volume Two on December 5th. It will be another four-disc set including the following. Charlie Chan at the Opera, Charlie Chan at the Olympics, Charlie Chan at the Race Track, and Charlie Chan at the Circus. Charlie Chan's Secret (1936) apparently has been skipped over for now because of this set's emphasis on Keye Luke and director H. Bruce Humberstone. Supplements will include four new featurettes, trailers, and restoration comparisons.

Genius Products will release H.G. Wells' science fiction classic Things to Come (1936, with Raymond Massey and Ralph Richardson) in a new special edition on November 28th. The DVD includes both the original black-and-white and a newly colorized version. Extras include an audio commentary by Ray Harryhausen. There's no indication that this version will include any of the footage removed from the original 108-minute release version.

Grapevine Video (grapevinevideo.com) will release seven double feature discs in September (no specific date available), many focusing on particular players. The Clara Kimball Young disc contains Eyes of Youth (1919, features a bit part by Rudolph Valentino) and The Worldly Madonna (1922, film of intrigue and murder in which Young play two parts). The Henry B. Walthall disc contains The Raven (1915) and Ghost (1915, Erich von Stroheim has a bit part in this film). The Norma Talmadge disc contains Children in the House (1916) and Going Straight (1916, transferred from an excellent 28mm tinted print) - both also featuring Eugene Pallette. The Yakima Canutt disc contains two westerns - Branded a Bandit (1924) and The Iron Rider (1926). The Buster Crabbe and Al St. John disc contains two westerns from their "Billy the Kid" series - His Brother's Ghost (1945) and Shadows of Death (1945). The Crime Dramas disc contains Escape by Night (1937, with Bill, the guide dog) and Desert Escape (1940, with Grey Shadow as "Wolf"). Finally the "Peck's Bad Boy" disc contains Peck's Bad Boy (1934, with Jackie Cooper) and Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus (1938, with Tommy Kelly).

Home Vision (a division of Image) will release a three-disc set called Rediscover Jacques Feyder on October 24th. Included are Queen of Atlantis (1920), Crainquebille (1922), and Faces of Children (1925).

On October 3rd, Image will have The Twilight Zone: The Complete Definitive Collection (all 28 discs in one box). Image starts off November with a non-colourized version of The Great Rupert (1950, with Jimmy Durante) on the 7th along with a re-release of the 1935 version of Scrooge (with Seymour Hicks in the title role). Coming on November 21st is Elvis Presley: The Ed Sullivan Shows which presents the three complete Sullivan shows in which Elvis first made his appearance. Two more Gene Autry westerns, both from 1942, will appear on November 28th - Call of the Canyon and Stardust on the Sage.

On October 17th Kino will release a couple of nice director tributes. Billy Wilder Speaks is a series of 1991 filmed interviews with Wilder conducted by filmmaker Volker Schlondorff, illustrated with film clips, rare photographs, and artwork. Wilder participated under the condition that the interviews not be released until after his death. The DVD includes 70 minutes of additional interview footage and on-camera commentary by Schlondorff, an essay on the making of the film, and a Billy Wilder filmography and trailer gallery. Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen includes a lengthy consideration of the director's work as remembered by actors who worked with him and involving the participation of his daughter and current filmmakers inspired by Ulmer's efforts. Included on the disc is one of Ulmer's PRC films, 1943's The Isle of Forgotten Sins.

Kultur will release George Burns: The TV Specials Collection on October 31st. It will be a four-disc set containing nine hour-long specials: George Burns Special, George Burns One Man Show, George Burns 100th Birthday Party, George Burns in Nashville, George Burns Early Early Early Christmas Show, George Burns & Other Sex Symbols, George Burns Celebrates 80 Years in Show Business, George Burns How to Live to Be 100 Special, and George Burns 90th Birthday Party.

Legend Films, the colorization specialists who usually release their efforts through Fox, will be releasing Laurel and Hardy's Babes in Toyland (1934) under its later title March of the Wooden Soldiers on November 7th. The disc will include both B&W and colorized versions, as well as a Rudolph short.

Lionsgate plans to release Soldier Blue (1970) on December 12th, although it's unclear if it'll have a proper anamorphic transfer. The same goes for Someone Behind the Door (1971, with Charles Bronson).

Paramount will release Perry Mason: Season 1, Volume 2 on November 21st. It will contain the last 20 episodes of the season. The studio will finally release the long-promised The Conformist (1971) and 1900 (1977) - both directed by Bernardo Bertolucci - on December 5th. The latter will be a two-disc set featuring the 315-minute cut of the film. On the 12th, we'll be getting My Geisha (1962, with Shirley MacLaine and Yves Montand). In other Paramount news, Lucy fans will be glad to know that with all six seasons of the I Love Lucy series now available on DVD, CBS and Paramount will offer the one-hour Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Shows from 1958-1960 (seasons seven, eight, and nine) in a single DVD box set to appear in early 2007.

David Gasten of The Pola Negri Appreciation Site reports (at the alt.movies.silent newsgroup) that a limited-run DVD release of the ultra-rare Pola Negri film Sappho (1921) is in preparation. It will feature a compiled orchestral score and will be available exclusively from the website (www.polanegri.com) in a numbered edition of 100 copies.

Sony has finally announced that The Premiere Frank Capra Collection will be released on December 5th. It will include copies of American Madness, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It with You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Each film will appear on a separate disc and all apparently have been remastered for this release. This is particularly good news in the cases of You Can't Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington whose original DVD releases had ample room for improvement. According to Sony, each film will have a "Frank Capra Jr. remembers …" featurette and audio commentary. Also included in the set is a sixth disc containing various featurettes, new interviews, and the complete Frank Capra's American Dream documentary that originally was included on Columbia's disc of The Matinee Idol. A 96-page collectible scrapbook also accompanies the set. Platinum Blonde, which was originally expected in this set, has apparently been dropped in favour of the documentary. Also on December 5th, Sony finally makes Holiday available as a separate release, good news for those who resisted Sony's Cary Grant Collection from early this year hoping to see the title appear on its own. This suggests that American Madness (the only new-to-DVD title in the afore-mentioned Capra collection) will also appear separately eventually also.

Tapeworm Distribution (A2ZCDs.com - a mainly PD releasing outfit) will offer Bowery Blitzkreig (1941, with the East Side Kids) and Code of the Cactus (1939, with Tim McCoy) on September 25th. On October 3rd, The Abe Lincoln of Ninth Avenue (1939, with Jackie Cooper), Abraham Lincoln (1930, with Walter Huston), and History of Advertising: Animation 1930-1940 (2004, a selection of vintage B&W and colour advertising spots) are scheduled. A perusal of this company's catalog indicates that a number of standard PD items are available, but also some less-known titles as well. I have no knowledge of the quality of the releases, however.

Time-Life has an exclusive deal on the Get Smart TV series. It will issue a 25-disc box (Get Smart: The Complete Series) set that includes the series' entire five year run plus nine hours worth of extras (commentaries, Barbara Feldon intros, new interviews, bloopers, etc.) on November 15th. The exclusive deal lasts until autumn 2007 when individual season sets will start to be available from normal video retailers.

Universal's SE of Holiday Inn (due October 10th) will include a new digital transfer, audio commentary by film historian Ken Barnes, the theatrical trailer, and two new featurettes.

VCI has several offerings all due on October 31st, including a double feature disc of King Dinosaur (a low-budget Bert Gordon effort from 1952) and The Jungle (1955), and a double feature disc of The Lonesome Trail (1955, with Wayne Morris) and The Silver Star (1955, with Lon Chaney Jr.).

Warner Bros. has finally revealed that the release of Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection will occur on November 28th. The 4-disc set will contain both the 1948 and 1950 serials starring Kirk Alyn. Also coming the same day is the Barbra Streisand version of A Star Is Born (1976) featuring audio commentary by Streisand. In other Warner news, the Astaire & Rogers Collection: Volume Two has slipped one week to an October 24th release.

In HD classic news, Paramount has revealed that it will release Reds in both HD-DVD and Blu-ray versions on November 7th. Warner Bros. will offer Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) in HD-DVD on October 7th.

Well, once again, that's it for now. I'll be back again soon.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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