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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Coming Attractions #102 - DVD and BD Edition #1

Since my recent decision to split Classic Coming Attractions into two editions at least on a trial basis, one focusing solely on MOD discs and the other (this one) solely on pressed DVDs and Blu-rays, this is the first edition of the latter incarnation. This time out I have the usual new classic title release announcements as well as a healthy suite of reviews.

Note however that I will continue to maintain only one database of new announcements of classic titles. It will include both pressed disc releases and MOD releases and you can link to the updated version here. Note that it includes quite a few new MOD releases for the August to October period.

To begin with this time out, I'm focusing on the series of "Doctor" films made in Britain in the 1950s and 60s that mainly starred Dirk Bogarde. All seven titles in the series have been recently released on DVD by VCI. In addition to a general consideration of the entire series, I've reviewed one of the titles in more detail: Doctor in the House.

Other DVD reviews in this column include: Twilight Time's The Flim-Flam Man, Shout! Factory's The Inspector General, TCM/Universal's Audie Murphy Westerns Collection, and S'more Entertainment's A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays.

On Blu-ray, I've taken a look at MGM's individual releases of The Magnificent Seven, and Return of the Magnificent Seven; Criterion's The Killing/Killer's Kiss; VCI's Campbell's Kingdom; and Twilight Time's The Egyptian.

As usual, I have the latest classic release news and the new announcements database has been updated accordingly.


The "Doctor" Series

The "Doctor" series consists of seven films based on the comic novels of Richard Gordon. Gordon was a British physician whose "Doctor" series of books ran to 15 titles over the 35-year period from 1952-1976. They focus on the adventures and misadventures of a group of medical students/doctors beginning with their time at St. Swithin's teaching hospital. Chief among them are newcomer Simon Sparrow (played by Dirk Bogarde in four of the films and Leslie Phillips in the other three) and long-time students Tony Benskin, Richard Grimsdyke, and Taffy Evans (played by Donald Sinden, Kenneth More, and Donald Houston respectively in the film series' opening title, 1954's Doctor in the House). Another recurring character is the chief of surgery, Sir Lancelot Spratt, portrayed by James Robertson Justice in six of the films. Muriel Pavlow plays nurse, later doctor, Joy Gibson in a couple of the early titles.

A successful TV series was also made by London Weekend Television. It began in 1969 with the first season entitled "Doctor in the House" and continued with six additional seasons mainly aired in the 1970s (although the final season aired as late as 1991 and was entitled "Doctor at the Top"). None of the film series' principals were in the TV series.

The complete list of theatrical films is as follows: Doctor in the House (1954), Doctor at Sea (1955), Doctor at Large (1957), Doctor in Love (1960), Doctor in Distress (1963), Doctor in Clover (1967), and Doctor in Trouble (1970). All have recently been released on separate DVDs each by VCI. The releases are all part of VCI's product line, "The Rank Collection". As mentioned above, I've looked at all seven DVDs, with particular attention to one of them - Doctor in the House.

Doctor in the House (DVD)

Doctor in the House is the obvious one to start with as it introduces all the main characters and also gives one a good idea of what to expect from all the films. It has the typical blend of 50s-60s British humour, focusing on mild sexual titillation and innuendo (chiefly to the disadvantage of the female sex) and otherwise having a good blend of vocal byplay and slapstick. As for learning to be doctors, student life seems to be centred on beer, women, and rugby with studies merely a secondary concern. Dirk Bogarde is of course front and centre in the film as the aspiring doctor Simon Sparrow. He would later tire of the role, but as he makes clear in his autobiography, he never forgot its importance in cementing his early film career. The supporting cast includes the likes of the aforementioned Sinden, More (who would get a BAFTA award for Best Actor for his efforts), Pavlow, and Justice, but is also salted with familiar faces such as Joan Sims (playing a nurse with the unlikely nickname of Rigor Mortis), Shirley Eaton (later immortalized as the golden girl in Goldfinger), Kay Kendall, Joan Hickson, and George Coulouris. VCI gives the film a nice full-frame transfer consistent with the film's original Academy Standard 1.37:1 theatrical release aspect ratio. The image is generally sharp and film's original Technicolor looks a bit muted, but overall the colour fidelity is not bad. Mild grain is intact although there are a few speckles and scratches still evident though hardly of much concern. English monaural and enhanced 5.1 DD tracks are both provided. The latter does impart a strengthened dynamic feel to the audio though any surround aspect is quite subdued. Background hiss is minimal. English subtitles are provided. The supplement package consists of a photo gallery and most significantly, a very listenable audio commentary by Donald Sinden and Muriel Pavlow, both of whom seem quite taken with the process and opportunity to reminisce about the film. Recommended.

Here's the complete list of VCI's "Doctor" DVD releases with specifications and extras:

Title Video Audio Extras
Doctor in the House (1954) Full Frame Mono, Enhanced DD 5.1 Audio Commentary by Donald Sinden and Muriel Pavlow, Photo Gallery
Doctor at Sea (1955) 1.78:1 anamorphic Mono, Enhanced DD 5.1 Photo Gallery
Doctor at Large (1957) 1.85:1 letterbox Mono, Enhanced DD 5.1 Audio Commentary by Donald Sinden and Muriel Pavlow, Photo Gallery
Doctor in Love (1960) 1.78:1 letterbox Mono, Enhanced DD 5.1 Audio Commentary by Leslie Phillips and Liz Fraser, Photo Gallery
Doctor in Distress (1963) 1.78:1 letterbox Mono, Enhanced DD 5.1 Photo Gallery
Doctor in Clover (1967) 1.78:1 letterbox Mono Audio Commentary by Leslie Phillips and Shirley Anne Field, Photo Gallery
Doctor in Trouble (1970) 1.78:1 letterbox Mono, Enhanced DD 5.1 Audio Commentary by Leslie Phillips, Photo Gallery

The humour sprinkled throughout these films makes any of them a no-brainer if you're looking for real comedy compared to the lazy humour of current-day, gross-out, so-called comedic fare. Thanks is certainly due to VCI for making them all available on DVD and they warrant your support despite the disappointment of non-anamorphic releases for the later films.


DVD Reviews

Between extensive stretches of work on TV series and TV movies in the late-1950s-early-1960s and again in the 1980s, George C. Scott had quite a run of theatrical features highlighted of course by his Oscar-winning turn in the title role of Patton (1970). There are many other memorable films from that run including Petulia (1968), They Might Be Giants (1971), The Hospital (1971), The New Centurions (1972), and Islands in the Stream (1975). But one film that has tended to have been overlooked is 1967's The Flim-Flam Man - a remarkably amiable 20th Century-Fox production directed by Irvin Kershner in which Scott plays Mordecai Jones, a grifter of some renown.

The Flim-Flam Man (DVD)

Scott seems to be really enjoying himself playing a con artist introducing a young army deserter (Michael Sarrazin, in an effective big-screen debut) into the ways of fleecing the local population in rural North Carolina. Better yet, that local population consists of an incredible who's who of the era's character actors including Harry Morgan as the local sheriff, Albert Salmi as his deputy (a pair that make Andy and Barney of The Andy Griffith Show look like paragons of law enforcement in comparison), Alice Ghostley, Jack Albertson, Strother Martin, and Slim Pickens. And if you appreciate good car-chase sequences and general mayhem caused by cars, The Flim-Flam Man has you covered there in spades, due to the veteran savvy of second-unit director Yakima Canutt. It is the boutique label, Twilight Time, that we may thank for making this late-60s gem available on DVD and in a very nice 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The Panavision image is consistently sharp and sports fine colour fidelity considering the Deluxe colour of the era. There are some speckles, but debris and damage is otherwise minimal and should not be of concern. The mono sound is in good shape, offering clear distortion- and hiss-free dialogue that is well-balanced with the sound effects and Jerry Goldsmith's evocative score throughout. The latter is accorded an isolated track as the disc's main supplement, with the original theatrical trailer also included. Highly recommended.

The Inspector General, a 1949 Warner Bros. Technicolor production starring Danny Kaye in one of his best vehicles, has long languished in the public domain. Many versions have been available on DVD, most in lamentable condition with the principal exception of a very decent 2000 Roan Group restoration.

The Inspector General (DVD)

To the rescue has come Shout! Factory with a new Collector's Edition that betters the Roan effort in some respects. The film has Danny Kaye playing Georgi, a buffoon first working with the purveyor (Walter Slezak) of a cure-all "golden elixir" who then finds himself mistaken for an Inspector General by the corrupt mayor (Gene Lockhart) of a Russian village into which he wanders. This scenario sets up a number of comic situations involving the village's many corrupt officials (most related to each other) and Kaye's mistaken identity and propensity to get himself in trouble. There is ample opportunity for Kaye to demonstrate his physical humour as well as his way with words and music (including songs by his wife Sylvia Fine). The 102-minute film is a funny and delightful romp as director Henry Koster ushers Kaye and the cast of Golden Age supporting players (including, in addition to those already mentioned, Alan Hale, Elsa Lanchester, Walter Catlett, Rhys Williams, Nestor Paiva, Byron Foulger, and James Conlin) through their paces. The use of Technicolor is a welcome production value that adds pizzazz throughout. And on Shout! Factory's new DVD release (mastered from a 35mm print), we can actually see that Technicolor, perhaps not in very deeply saturated glory, but at least in a consistent and highly satisfactory degree of fidelity. Skin-tones are well conveyed. The image is not as vibrant as the Roan release (also from a 35mm print), but neither is it as dark and detail-swallowing either. There is appreciable evidence of speckles and some debris on both releases. Shout!'s mono sound delivers good clarity whether dialogue or singing, and may be a slight improvement over the Roan effort. In the area of supplements, the Shout! Factory release is clearly superior. It offers 17 minutes of colour home movies taken by director Henry Koster with commentary by the director's son, Robert Koster. We also get the generally entertaining Money on Your Life, a 1938 Educational Pictures short starring Danny Kaye that offers optional commentary by film historian Bruce Lawton. In comparison, the Roan release only provided some cast bios and production notes. Shout!'s new release of The Inspector General is recommended. If you already have the Roan release (now long out-of-print), an upgrade will only be really worth it for Danny Kaye lovers though.

TCM's Vault Collection in conjunction with Universal has been enhanced by the addition of four Audie Murphy Universal westerns of the 1950s, sold only as a set under the title Audie Murphy Westerns Collection. Included are 1950's Sierra, 1953's Ride Clear of Diablo, 1954's Drums Across the River, and 1958's Ride a Crooked Trail.

Audie Murphy Westerns Collection (DVD)

This is a good representation of Murphy's 50s work with only Sierra (Murphy and father trying to escape the law with Wanda Hendrix [Murphy's real-life wife at the time] and Tony Curtis in an early villainous turn along for the ride) failing to provide a good quotient of action. Ride Clear of Diablo (Murphy attempts to learn who murdered his father and brother by first arresting a notorious outlaw) and Ride a Crooked Trail (outlaw Murphy assumes a U.S. Marshal's identity) are marginally the class of the set, both conventional A westerns of the time but each offering a bit of a twist in their plot and set-up. The latter offers both comedy and action with Walter Matthau doing a surprisingly good job as a town judge. In the former, Dan Duryea has one of his many opportunities to play a somewhat psychotic bad guy. Drums Across the River reflects somewhat the pro-Indian approach of westerns of that era, but is otherwise pretty standard fare with Murphy and his father (Walter Brennan) allying themselves against gold-jumpers invading Indian lands. All four films are given pretty good production values by Universal with Technicolor frequently in use and Ride A Crooked Trail given the full CinemaScope treatment. Murphy is solid in all the films, and is given good co-star support as well as plenty of familiar character actor back-up from the likes of Jack Elam, Henry Silva, Hugh O'Brian, Denver Pyle, Jay Silverheels, Morris Ankrum, Sara Allgood, Regis Toomey, Leo Gordon, Bob Steele, and Lyle Bettger. Packaged in a fold-out digipak without any slipcover, Universal's transfers are all quite good, delivered as pressed DVDs and offering solid colour fidelity and accurate skin-tones. The images are generally sharp and look to be properly framed - Sierra and Ride Clear of Diablo full frame while Drums Across the River and Ride a Crooked Trail are anamorphically enhanced at 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 respectively. Modest grain is evident on all titles. Some very minor edge enhancement is apparent on all titles, but a little more so on Sierra and Ride Clear of Diablo. The mono sound on all is strong and each title has a selection of supplements that includes an introduction by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, an Audie Murphy text bio, production information from the TCM database, and various stills and lobby card/poster reproductions. Recommended.

This past summer's big budget Cowboys and Aliens film has been the inspiration for S'more Entertainment to release A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays. The set, packaged in a standard Amaray case, contains four pressed discs each containing two films.

A Big Box of Cowboys, Aliens, Robots and Death Rays (DVD)

Virtually all are examples of B series westerns of the 1930s and 40s that feature such elements as ghosts and the supernatural, aliens, robots, death rays, old dark houses, or phantom riders superimposed on an old west setting. In addition, the appearance of cars and planes also adds an anachronistic tone in some instances. The titles include Puritan Pictures' Ghost Patrol (1936, Tim McCoy); Radio Ranch (1935, Mascot Pictures' feature length version of its Phantom Empire serial that starred Gene Autry); Sky Bandits (1940, a Sergeant Renfrew [James Newell] of the Royal Mounted tale from Criterion Pictures); Monogram Pictures' Gun Packer (1938, Jack Randall); World Wide Pictures' Tombstone Canyon (1932, Ken Maynard); Republic's Riders of the Whistling Skull (a 1937 Three Mesquiteers film featuring Robert Livingston); Monogram Pictures' Saddle Mountain Roundup (a 1941 Range Busters film featuring Ray "Crash" Corrigan); and Spectrum Pictures' Vanishing Riders (1935, Bill Cody). Riders of the Whistling Skull, Saddle Mountain Roundup, and Radio Ranch are easily the class of the set film-wise. Most if not all of these films are in the public domain and have received various DVD releases in the past. Of the few of them that I've seen, decent transfers are hard to come by, but S'more has managed presentable efforts that stand up pretty well on small screens though don't do as well on large projection systems. There are plenty of speckles, scratches, and debris while contrast issues occasionally rear their heads. The mono sound is workable on all the titles though background hiss is common. There are no supplements with any of the titles. I'd try a rental on this one first.


Blu-ray Reviews

These days it seems to me there's little awareness of the 20th century novelist Hammond Innes. In his day, he was equally as popular as the more main-stream thriller writer Alistair MacLean. Specializing in action adventure tales set in varied international locations, Innes turned out almost 3 dozen novels during the 1937-1996 period (he died in 1998) including such entertaining fare as "Wreckers Must Breathe", "The Trojan Horse", "The Lonely Skier", "Blue Ice", "Air Bridge", "The Wreck of the Mary Deare", "The Doomed Oasis", "The Strode Venturer", "North Star", "The Black Tide", and "The Big Footprints". All that is by way of introducing the 1957 film Campbell's Kingdom based on the Innes novel of the same title written in 1952.

Campbell's Kingdom (Blu-ray Disc)

The story is set in western Canada and revolves around the conflict between one man's dream of finding oil on his property and the threat posed by a hydro-electric dam that will completely flood the valley where his land is located. When the man (named Campbell) dies, his heir (a young man with only months to live played by Dirk Bogarde in his early matinee-idol days) takes up his grandfather's quest and runs into opposition from the head of the dam project (played by Stanley Baker). The film effectively blends action with an exotic locale (nicely captured with some effective location shooting- the Italian Alps standing in for the Canadian Rockies) and a degree of environmental concern. Bogarde has a fairly conventional role, but plays it with assurance. He's well supported by Stanley Baker as the film's chief heavy, Barbara Murray as an altruistic young woman who supplies the expected love interest, and James Robertson Justice as the head of a drilling team. The British-made film certainly offers nothing particularly novel in its story line and plot resolution, but it's a pleasant time-passer that looks good and offers a welcome Canadian emphasis. The film is available on Blu-ray from VCI as part of its Rank Collection line. The 1.66:1 transfer looks quite good on the whole, despite some application of DNR evident in overly-smoothed images. Sharpness is consistently good and image detail generally acceptable. Colour fidelity is also good (given the Eastman source) with the exception of some skin-tones. The image is also very clean in appearance. On the audio side, DD mono and re-purposed 5.1 tracks are provided. Both do the film justice although the latter is more lush-sounding though not particularly suggestive of a surround experience. English subtitling is provided. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended for Dirk Bogarde fans and otherwise as a rental.

The Egyptian (1954), an early Fox CinemaScope production, can at times seem slow-moving compared to the more exciting and well-publicized historical epics such as Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, but a thoughtful reconsideration affirms that it is very effective story-telling about a lesser-known era of classical history - the 13th century B.C.

The Egyptian (Blu-ray Disc)

It tells the story of Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom - who replaced earlier choices Dirk Bogarde and Farley Granger who both rejected the role), an Egyptian physician who was raised by foster parents when as a baby he was found floating on a raft of reeds in the Nile River. The circumstances of Sinuhe's life bring him in contact with many individuals - Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding), a pretender to the pharaoh's position Horemheb (Victor Mature), the pharaoh's ambitious sister (Gene Tierney), the loving and beguiling Merit (Jean Simmons), seductress Nefer (Bella Darvi, apparently Darryl Zanuch's mistress at the time), and scene-stealing thief and man-servant to Sinuhe, Kaptah (Peter Ustinov). The film is a magnificent treasure trove of the wealth of 1950s epic film-making - opulent and intricate production (some 67 sets, 5000 extras with costuming, and more than a million objects catalogued for the film), a then-enormous budget nearing $5 million and drawing on all the considerable technical expertise of the Fox studio factory, a unique musical collaboration between Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann on the film's score, and the inventiveness of the era's special effects experts. Simple give yourself over to the evocation of an era and enjoy the 139-minute ride with nary an obvious CGI effect to sidetrack you. Twilight Time's Blu-ray release delivers The Egyptian in stunning 2.55:1 glory. Apparently derived from an HD master residing in Fox's vaults, the release approaches the quality of one of Fox's own Blu-ray releases for a film of the same era - The Robe. The Egyptian isn't quite as crisp-looking, but its colour vibrancy and fidelity can't be denied. There may have been some minor DNR applied, but it's so subtle as to be not worth worrying about. Film grain is evident and natural looking. The film's audio is delivered by a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that offers clear dialogue and noticeable directionality for both dialogue and sound effects. Surround activity is limited, but effective in invoking ambience. The Newman/Herrmann score is well conveyed, but even more striking in its isolated score mode which is one of the disc's principal supplements. Also offered is a very detailed audio commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini (both departing from their usual film noir focus), the film's original theatrical trailer, and an 8-page pamphlet featuring notes by Julie Virgo. Highly recommended.

There's little new to be said about The Magnificent Seven, one of the seminal westerns of the 1950s and early 60s. Its virtues are many, from The Seven Samurai source material to the fine casting of the Seven (particularly Yul Brynner as Chris, Steve McQueen, and James Coburn) to Chris' on-screen assembly of the group to Elmer Bernstein's enduring theme music. The stylish and action-filled 1960 film spawned three follow-up films, with rather uneven results. From the original only Yul Brynner returned, reprising his role of Chris, in 1967's Return of the Seven (now retitled as Return of the Magnificent Seven).

The Magnificent Seven (Blu-ray Disc)Return of the Magnificent Seven (Blu-ray Disc)

Unfortunately there was no one of Eli Wallach's caliber for Brynner to go up against in this first sequel, and the results were rather anemic. Not anemic enough, however, to preclude another kick at the can in 1969 entitled Guns of the Magnificent Seven (not yet made available as a stand-alone Blu-ray disc). Both The Magnificent Seven and Return of the Magnificent Seven were previously made available on Blu-ray in The Magnificent Seven Collection box set and we have the same transfers just lifted from it for their new stand-alone releases. The Magnificent Seven is the better-looking of the two. It has a bright, clean appearance that looks sharp and offers very good fine detail. Facial features and material textures are particularly noticeable. Black levels are nice and deep and a fine grain structure is evident. Best of all, there's essentially no evidence of digital manipulation. Return of the Magnificent Seven falters during the opening reel in terms of cleanliness and sharpness, but then looks much as good as the other the rest of the way. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio on each film offers little that's very notable. Use of the surrounds is limited to a few gunshots, the sounds of horses, and Elmer Bernstein's recurrent score. Dialogue is clear on all with some decent directionality across the front. The Magnificent Seven adds English DD 5.1 and mono tracks as well as a Spanish DD 5.1 track. English, French, and Spanish subtitling is offered on both films. Both films carry over the same supplements as in the Blu-ray box set which means only a trailer with Return..., but a more substantial package with The Magnificent Seven. The latter includes a 45-minute making-of documentary, a featurette dissecting Elmer Berstein's score, and audio commentary from James Coburn, Eli Wallach, producer Walter Mirisch, and assistant director Robert Relyea - all previously available on the earlier DVD SE release. Missing from that unfortunately are Sir Christopher Frayling's excellent audio commentary plus a featurette containing Frayling's appreciation piece on the film. If you already have the previously issued Blu-ray box set, there's no reason to purchase these standalone releases. Only if you don't have the set and don't have any desire for any of the 3 sequels, is it worthwhile to consider the standalone releases.

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