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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #39 and New Announcements

Well, there's a lot of ground to cover, review-wise, now that the dust has begun to settle after my summer move. Ongoing computer and internet service problems are still to be fully resolved, but as I sit at my desk in the loft of our new home with a view of an inviting Ontario cottage country lake filtered by tall hemlocks and birch trees - all far from the madding crowd of Toronto, pretty much all seems well with the world.

In order to get back on track for what promises to be a busy end of the year for classic DVD, I'd fully intended to provide brief comments on all the discs that had accumulated over the summer. But the pile proved rather daunting, so in this column, I've restricted myself to Warner's offerings over the past four months (Doris Day Collection: Volume 2, Cult Camp Classics: Volumes 1-3, TCM Spotlight - Esther Williams: Volume 1, Film Noir Collection: Volume 4, Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory: Volume 2, Katharine Hepburn: 100th Anniversary Collection, Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection, Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938) and to the western releases during the same period (see next paragraph). Additionally there is coverage of a couple of independently produced DVDs of silent material that I believe are worth your attention The Valentino Collection, Houdini: The Man from Beyond).

I have shamefully neglected the upcoming westerns database and so despite a disappointing outlook for westerns on DVD, I have updated it and as suggested above, provided review coverage of several western offerings from the past few months (3:10 to Yuma, Gunsmoke: The First Season, Charro!, Stay Away Joe, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Gary Cooper: MGM Movie Legends Collection, John Wayne: Screen Legends Collection). Hopefully the current theatrical releases of the remake of 3:10 to Yuma and the Brad Pitt take on Jesse James (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Outlaw Robert Ford) will spark a western revival if only on the DVD front. It's not as though there's a lack of good western titles yet to be mined by the format. There are many western fans out there eager to see their favorites made available and not just in May or June as a sop to Father's Day. All studios, please take note! My personal desire is more Warner-produced westerns, the Randolph Scott Columbia and Fox westerns not yet available on DVD, and a nice box set of Alan Ladd westerns.

The upcoming classic announcements section has several items of interest though nothing among the titles newly announced is that inspiring. Fans of Warner Bros.' classic releases will, however, find some very welcome news related to the first quarter of 2008. The upcoming classic releases database has been updated accordingly.

Now, let's get to it!


Two Recent Silent Offerings

Although Rudolph Valentino is represented on DVD by several of his more familiar titles such as The Sheik, Son of the Sheik, and Cobra and by the recently rediscovered Beyond the Rocks, it's only with the current release from Flicker Alley of The Valentino Collection, that we start to get some real insight, on DVD, into the career of the well-known silent actor.

The Valentino Collection

Included on two discs are all that remains (that is, all that is generally believed to exist) of four Valentino films from the 1918 to 1922 period. The set begins with two titles from before he was a major star (A Society Sensation - a 1918 film here presented by a two-reel version of the original created in 1924, and Stolen Moments - a 1920 film edited down to three reels from the original six in 1922 by the producing company). In both films but particularly in Stolen Moments where he plays a smooth cad, Valentino is by far the most interesting player and in retrospect one understands why he quickly became a major performer almost immediately thereafter. Moran of the Lady Letty (1922) is a key film from Valentino's starring years at Paramount. It's a full-fledged action film with appeal to both male and female viewers and is presented by Flicker Alley with restored intertitles, a new score (Robert Israel) that works superbly, and corrected film speed and colour tints. The Young Rajah (1922, Valentino as a young Maharajah adopted and raised by a New England judge) as presented here is a reconstructed version using stills, script information, and surviving 16mm elements. Despite these limitations the resulting product manages to capture the spirit of the original film and Valentino's charisma shines through clearly. A new music score composed and performed by Jon Mirsalis is a welcome accompaniment. Flicker Alley supplements the four films with a fascinating array of silent and sound shorts (including an early Cinecolor travelogue of Hollywood and a memorial tribute film to Valentino), rare film clips and stills of Valentino in life and in death, a new short film documenting the Valentino memorial services and the history of the "lady in black", extensive promotional material, a booklet of new liner notes, and over 80 pages of information on other performers and technicians involved in the four films. This is the sort of comprehensive package that DVD can do so well (think Criterion) and Flicker Alley deserves support for making the level of effort evident in this set on behalf of a performer that the true film aficionado will be well aware of but the larger DVD-buying audience may not. Highly recommended.

Houdini: The Man from Beyond

Restored Serials Super Restoration Company takes a break from its work on serials to present Houdini: The Man from Beyond, a 1922 film starring the great escape artist, Harry Houdini, as a man who awakens after having been frozen for 100 years. The film's main theme is that of reincarnation, but it manages to be part melodrama, part horror story, part romance, and part adventure as well. The script is rather crudely cobbled together and its basic story fairly predictable, but it's fascinating to see Houdini on the screen and he even gets to show off his escape methods when tied up in sheets in an insane asylum. On view too is a sequence in which Houdini rescues the heroine from being swept over Niagara Falls. Restored Serials declares that its DVD-R version is the most complete one available (note that Restored Serials uses TDK Durabis discs which feature a technology that makes discs more durable and reliable by greatly enhancing resistance to scratches, smudges, and dust adherence), sporting scenes censored and missing from other versions. Still, the narrative's jerky nature suggests that there was even more originally. The presentation on DVD-R is workable at best. There are significant contrast and video noise issues that intrude upon one's immersion in the story. Also at issue is a rather unsubtle music score. Restored Serials does score points for a good supplement package including a newsreel sequence of Houdini escaping from a straight jacket while suspended in the air in downtown Dayton, Ohio and DVD ROM content that presents a 20-page pressbook for the film as well as a 35-page synopsis of a Houdini serial. The overall quality of Houdini: The Man from Beyond is not nearly in the same league as the Valentino Collection, but the effort is a worthy one and deserves support from silent film fans.


Recent Classic Releases from Warner Bros.

As usual, Warner Bros. has been particularly prolific. The Doris Day Collection: Volume 2 collects together six WB films from the 1948-1955 period including Day's debut in Romance on the High Seas (1948). The other films are: My Dream Is Yours (1949), I'll See You in My Dreams (1951), On Moonlight Bay (1951), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1952), and Lucky Me (1955).

The Doris Day Collection: Volume 2

All are in colour except I'll See You in My Dreams. Doris Day fans will be very happy with this new set and even non-Day enthusiasts should appreciate the entertainment value of most of the films, particularly Romance on the High Seas, My Dream Is Yours, and the complementary titles On Moonlight Bay and By the Light of the Silvery Moon. I'll See You in My Dreams (a biography of lyricist Gus Cahn) and particularly Lucky Me (in CinemaScope but also Day's last film while under contract to Warners) are the two lesser titles. All the titles have received new digital transfers and look quite good. The four earliest colour films fair best, exhibiting vibrant colour (accurate-looking for the most part), minor film grain, and but minimal mis-registration occurrences (Ultra Resolution was not applied to any of these films). The B&W I'll See You in My Dreams is characterized by very good contrast and a crisp image, while Lucky Me (2.5:1 anamorphic) looks faded at times and sports inconsistent flesh tones. The audio on all titles is in good shape with but minor hiss intruding. Lucky Me offers a new DD 5.1 track that delivers good directional effects across the front. All titles feature Warners' typically fine set of extras including at least one vintage short, a classic cartoon, and the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

Cult Camp Classics: Volume 1 - Sci-Fi Thrillers Cult Camp Classics: Volume 2 - Women in Peril Cult Camp Classics: Volume 3 - Terrorized Travelers

I've been able to look at the first three volumes of Warners' Cult Camp Classics and though all the titles may not exactly fit one's perception of cult and camp, the offerings are very welcome on DVD and some offer plenty of entertainment value (even if some is of the guilty pleasure type). Volume 3: Terrorized Travelers held most appeal for me as a whole. You get two opportunities to see Dana Andrews in peril in the air (Zero Hour!) and in the desert (Hot Rods to Hell) as well as a grim-jawed Charlton Heston dealing with a plane hijacker in Skyjacked. The latter two films are technically not that good but juicily enticing nonetheless. Zero Hour! manages some good suspense and nice work by Andrews although a pompous performance by Sterling Hayden has to be endured. Volume 2: Women in Peril is worth a look for one of its films alone - Caged!, a women's prison film with fine work by both Eleanor Parker and Hope Emerson. The other offerings are decidedly inferior - The Big Cube (Lana Turner on the downslope) and Trog (Joan Crawford at the bottom). Volume 1: Sci-Fi Thrillers has science fiction but little of the thriller. The offerings are all second-rate - Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Queen of Outer Space, and the redundantly-titled The Giant Behemoth. No matter what the caliber of the individual films, however, Warners offers fine transfers on all (all correctly framed and anamorphically enhanced as appropriate) with acceptable mono sound. Curiously, the titles of Volume 3 all receive audio commentaries while those of the other two volumes have to be content with only the theatrical trailers. Availability is by box set or by individual title. On that basis, I'd recommend Volume 3: Terrorized Travelers and the individual title Caged! from Volume 2.

TCM Spotlight - Esther Williams: Volume 1

I can't say that I'm a huge fan of Esther Williams' swimming extravaganzas, but for those who are, TCM Spotlight - Esther Williams: Volume 1 is a very nice package. Five films, each on a separate disc encased in a fold-out digipak and covering the period 1944-1953, are included (Bathing Beauty, Easy to Wed, On an Island with You, Neptune's Daughter, and Dangerous When Wet). Although all star Williams, the latter three are the swimming spectacles that one most associates with her. The first two films are early efforts that focus as much if not more on costars such as Red Skelton (Bathing Beauty - Williams states in one of its supplements that she can't watch herself in it) or Van Johnson/Lucille Ball (Easy to Wed - an inferior remake of Libeled Lady). Neptune's Daughter (Williams as a bathing suit designer; co-star Red Skelton) and Dangerous When Wet (she tries swimming the English Channel; underwater sequence with Tom & Jerry a highlight) are generally regarded as the best of the three later films and I found that personally to be the case as well. All five films were accorded Technicolor treatment when made by MGM and have been well served by Warner's bright, crisp transfers, aside from some minor registration issues. All are full frame as originally made. The mono sound is in good shape aside from some occasional low-level hiss. The supplements include the usual admirable Warner package of vintage shorts and cartoons and trailers, but in addition feature the TCM "Private Screenings" edition with Esther Williams (in which she's quite forthright in her comments), outtake musical numbers for Neptune's Daughter ("I Want My Money Back") and Dangerous When Wet ("C'est La Guerre"), and an Esther Williams extract from 1951's cameo-studded Callaway Went Thataway. Recommended.

Film Noir Collection: Volume 4

One of the summer's best releases is Warner's Film Noir Collection: Volume 4. This time we're treated to ten films, presented as double bills on five discs (each disc also available separately). From the Warner-controlled catalogue, RKO is represented by Where Danger Lives, The Big Steal, and They Live by Night; MGM by Tension, Side Street, Act of Violence, and Mystery Street; Warner Bros. by Illegal and Crime Wave; and Monogram by Decoy. It's not often that a set of ten films contains not a single poor one in the bunch, but that's very much the case here. Every one offers something intriguing in itself or iconic to film noir. They Live by Night (Farley Granger and Cathy O'Donnell as lovers roped into crime - directed by Nicholas Ray) and its unofficial follow-up, Side Street (Granger and O'Donnell as a young married couple who turn to crime - directed by Anthony Mann), along with Decoy (a real B sleeper with femme fatale literally to-die-for Jean Gillie) are perhaps the cream of this crop. But Act of Violence (terrific drama starring Van Heflin and Robert Ryan - what's a noir collection without him?), Tension (with a juicy performance by the redoubtable Audrey Totter), and The Big Steal (Out of the Past's Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer re-team in Mexico) all give them a run for their money. Even slightly lesser fare such as Where Danger Lives (iconic Robert Mitchum), Crime Wave and Mystery Street (police procedurals with class), and Illegal (Edward G. Robinson in a remake of 1932's The Mouthpiece, and the least noirish of the bunch) offer plenty of entertainment, each briskly presented in an hour and a half at most. The Warner packaging is admirable, including transfers that range from good (slight softness, some scratches) to very good (crisp with very fine contrast) and appreciable extras - audio commentaries and new making-of featurettes for all, and theatrical trailers for most. Highly recommended.


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