|Classic Reviews Round-Up #58 and New Announcements
Welcome to the latest edition of Classic Coming Attractions. I have the usual mix of reviews and new announcements for you this time out, plus some information on non-Region-1 pressed releases.
Reviews include Actors and Sin (from VCI); My Fair Lady (from Paramount); The Male Animal, The Tall Target, Badman's Territory, Return of the Bad Men, and Esther Williams Collection 2 (Warner Bros.); Mayerling (from Criterion); The Wizard of Oz: Ultimate Collectors Edition (Warner Bros. Blu-ray); Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney Blu-ray); and Traffik: 20th Anniversary Edition (Acorn Media).
The new announcements list is once again rather light on choice titles, at least those scheduled to appear on pressed DVDs in Region 1. Most of the more interesting titles are entries in the Warner Archive. We're starting to hear about the January and February releases, but there are few announcements of note on pre-1970s films from any of the major studios so far.
Please note that the classic announcements database has been updated accordingly.
Classic Titles Available Outside of Region 1
Starting with this column, I've begun to pay attention once again to announcements for other regions. This will be a work in progress, but to begin with, some forthcoming titles will be found at the end of the New Announcements section. In the meantime, I would like to create an ongoing list of classic titles available on pressed DVD or Blu-ray only outside of Region 1. While I am aware of some such titles myself, I'd appreciate hearing from you all about any such titles that you may be already be aware of too. Please email me at email@example.com. In the meantime, reader Marcel Hanke from Germany has kindly listed some of the classic titles already available on Region 2 pressed DVDs that he's come across recently - all, with the possible exception of the Sony Italian releases, having English audio with removable subtitles:
RKO titles Desperate, Bodyguard, The Clay Pigeon, Stranger on the Third Floor, The Mad Miss Manton, Underwater!, box set of 8 Saint films - all from Editions Montparnasse in France (incidentally, this company has an extensive catalogue of RKO product available dating back over quite a few years)
The Search, Party Girl, Ceiling Zero - all from WB in France
Crime and Punishment - from Sony in France
RKO titles The Fallen Sparrow, The Las Vegas Story, Second Chance, Cornered, They Won't Believe Me, In Name Only - all from Sony in Italy
The Blue Dahlia - from Koch Media in Germany
Actors and Sin, a recent DVD release from VCI, fills in one more title on the DVD filmography of Edward G. Robinson, but it's not an entry that's particularly well known. Originally released in 1951 through United Artists, the film actually comprises two short films - Actor's Blood and Woman of Sin, both written, produced and directed by Ben Hecht.
Both have show business settings, in New York and Hollywood respectively. Actor's Blood, starring Robinson and Marsha Hunt is the lesser of the two. In it, a young stage actress (Hunt) who finds early fame but then gradually alienates all around her is found murdered by her actor-father (Robinson) whose own career had stagnated as his daughter's rose and fell. The story is told partially in a flashback and then reaches a climax as Robinson assembles all the murder suspects in order to reveal the culprit. Both Robinson and Hunt give good efforts, but the film telegraphs its conclusion and seems clumsily shot for a veteran of Hecht's stature (and his co-director Lee Garmes). Woman of Sin is a more polished effort and gets fine work from the often under-rated Eddie Albert as a Hollywood agent who finds that he has a hot script on his hands, but one that's been written by a nine-year-old girl (Ben Hecht's daughter Jenny - whose limited acting experience shows). Overall, aside from the work of the actors, the best thing about these short films is well-crafted dialogue, Hecht's hallmark. VCI has mastered the DVD from the original negative with restoration work to clean up some dirt and scratches. The results are decent, although the images looking a little inconsistent - quite sharp at times, soft with contrast issues at others. The mono sound is quite good, with just some minor hiss evident. In addition to a restoration comparison and the original trailer, VCI provides a good, new interview with Marsha Hunt, conducted by Joel Blumberg. It ranges over her career with some specific discussion of Actors and Sin. Recommended as a rental.
My Fair Lady (1964) received a very good two-disc special edition treatment by Warner Bros. five years ago. The supplements were impressive and the image transfer was quite good although edge effects were frequently quite obvious.
The release was based on extensive restoration work done on the film by Robert Harris and James Katz in the 1990s. Recently, the rights to the title reverted to CBS and by virtue of the relationship between it and Paramount, the latter has quickly issued its own single disc release of the film. Despite the single disc, Paramount has managed to carry over the vast majority of the supplements on Warners' SE including the audio commentary by Harris and others. The only main missing item is the lengthy making-of documentary. Paramount has prepared a new transfer and there is a slight improvement over Warners' previous effort with digital sharpening not as prominent. Edge effects are still apparent, but not quite as pronounced although they will still be noticeable on larger displays. While one can't exactly blame Paramount for wanting to see its imprimatur on a home video release of My Fair Lady, the studio has done so with undue haste. It would have been better for Paramount to have waited and delivered a top-notch Blu-ray release for the title, rather than try to pick consumers' DVD pockets once more (much like the studio is doing with its Centennial Collection series of DVD releases).
James Thurber and Elliott Nugent's play, The Male Animal, was filmed by Warner Bros. in late 1941 and released in late winter 1942. The story revolves around university professor Tommy Turner (Henry Fonda) who plans to read a letter by anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti to his class on the Monday after homecoming weekend.
Tommy's plan becomes widely known when an editorial is written that brands the university's trustees as fascists and praising Tommy as the only professor interested in true freedom of speech. When trustee Ed Keller (Eugene Pallette) becomes aware of this, he demands that Tommy not read the letter, threatening dismissal if he doesn't agree. Complicating the homecoming weekend further is the presence of former football hero Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson) who is still interested in former girlfriend Ellen Turner (Olivia De Havilland) who is now Tommy's wife. Co-playwright Elliott Nugent, who had played the Tommy Turner role on Broadway, was tapped to direct the film version and the result is an outing that reminds one of a Frank Capra film - what with its socially relevant theme wrapped in gentle comedic situations and characters. Due to its stage-bound origins, it lacks the expansive feel of the best Capra films though, and its ending is rather patly handled. Despite those minor issues, it's a very entertaining experience due to adept work by Fonda and De Havilland. The supporting cast is impressive also. The film follows the original play fairly closely and includes several of the Broadway cast recreating their supporting roles (Don Defore, Ivan Simpson, Minna Phillips, and Regina Wallace). The play was later the basis for Warners' 1952 musical, She's Working Her Way Through College with Ronald Reagan and Virginia Mayo. The Warner Archive presentation (full frame as originally released and progressively transferred) is more than acceptable. Image detail and overall sharpness are quite good although some slightly soft sequences are evident. The mono sound is clear and free of distortion. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended.
Despite a generally impressive and varied array of films, director Anatole Litvak has never received a great deal of attention. After working in film in Germany in the 1920s, he left as the Nazis rose to power after working in both France and England, became best known for an impressive series of films at Warner Bros., including The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, All This and Heaven Too, and City for Conquest. After wartime service in the photography division of the U.S army, he returned to filmmaking and remained active in it until late in his life. Some of his later films include The Snake Pit, Decision Before Dawn, Anastasia, and The Night of the Generals. It was the 1936 French-made film Mayerling that was principally responsible for his later career in America, and that film has now been released on DVD by Criterion as part of its Essential Art House series.
The film is an entrancing romance based on the real-life though doomed adulterous affair between Austrian Archduke Rudolf and the young and innocent baron's daughter Maria Vetsera. The lovers are portrayed by Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux, presaging their appearance together almost 20 years later in The Earrings of Madame de… . Mounted with style by Litvak, the film tells its tale in a straightforward fashion, but is characterized by an impressive use of shadowy lighting and a varied range of camera angles and movement that heighten the drama through allusion to some off-screen events rather than the direct presentation of them. Both Boyer and especially Darrieux handle the material with sensitivity, the latter underplaying her role very effectively. The film does a good job of handling the court intrigues and even alludes to social issues of the time and the ruthless way in which they were handled by the Austrian emperor. This provides a good counterpoint to the romantic core of the film. For those unfamiliar with the story, I will leave the significance of the film's title unexplained. Criterion's presentation (full frame as originally presented, with no window-boxing being used) is somewhat rough with appreciable scratches, speckles, dirt and debris. Film grain is quite prominent. Overall, the image is quite watchable, however, with contrast and shadow detail acceptable. The mono sound (in French with good English sub-titles) has some age-related hiss and crackle, but is clear enough. There are no supplements except for a brief set of liner notes. The film allows this DVD offering a definite recommendation even though the presentation is in the lower tier of Criterion's efforts. The film was later remade by Litvak (with Mel Ferrer and Audrey Hepburn in the lead roles) as a 1957 episode of the Producers' Showcase TV series.
The Tall Target is a 1951 MGM production that tells the story of a former police officer who believes that someone aboard the overnight train from New York to Washington plans to kill newly-elected President Abraham Lincoln when the train stops in Baltimore.
The film captures the sense of the time and place very effectively and Dick Powell handles his role of the police officer (incidentally called John Kennedy) with the grit and intensity he typically brought to his post-war efforts. Where the film lets down is in its handling of the assassination plot - there are issues of coherence and the conspirators (Adolphe Menjou is the principal one) lack much sense of menace or even competency. More impressive is the atmosphere that director Anthony Mann creates through the claustrophobic nature of the train and its narrow corridors, the shadowy setting imposed by the night and the steamy train exteriors, and the judicious use of key lighting. Through its main character and in its look, the film has definite film noir credentials. The Warner Archive presentation (full frame as originally released and progressively transferred) works quite well at conveying the film's atmospheric nature. There are some speckles, but shadow detail is good and blacks are quite deep. There is some aliasing and edge effects, but they're not too intrusive. The mono sound is clear throughout. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Not in the top echelon of Anthony' Mann's work, but still worth a look.
For those who may still be unsure about the merits of Blu-ray when it comes to classic titles, further evidence of the improvements over DVD that new Blu-ray transfers offer is abundantly clear from the recent Blu-ray releases of The Wizard of Oz (from Warner Bros.) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney).
The Wizard of Oz release appears as an Ultimate Collector's Edition of three discs that contain lots of great supplementary material both old and new that mainly focuses on the film itself but also goes as far afield as the entire 6-hour, 3-part documentary on the history of MGM in the Golden Age, When the Lion Roars. Bill Hunt has already given this release an in-depth review here and I suggest you check it out for his take as well as full details on the supplements in the package, but I wanted to add my own admiration for the work that Warner Bros. has done on the film transfer itself. The results are truly outstanding in terms of image clarity, brightness, colour fidelity, appropriate grain, and lack of any obvious digital manipulation. The advance over the previous DVD release is quite evident in the detail of the textures of costumes and the surfaces of props. A very slightly increased evidence of grain is apparent, but it looks entirely appropriate and the image really does offer the proverbial film-like experience. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio also outshines the DD5.1 track of the previous DVD, offering a more dynamic sound in general and enhancing front separation when appropriate. You may not want the collectible material that's in the ultimate box and may be willing to wait for a more stripped-down version, but whichever way you choose, having this new Blu-ray transfer of The Wizard of Oz in your collection should be a given. Very highly recommended.
Almost as rewarding is Disney's new Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Diamond Edition which Jeff Kleist has reviewed in detail here at The Bits. Check that out for information on the three-disc release's many supplements.
The image's colour fidelity is the true stand-out for me, capturing primary colours and more muted ones equally well, with the resulting image looking noticeably more lush than the previous DVD Platinum Edition. Sharpness ranges from excellent (most of the time) to quite good (occasionally edges seem a tad blurred, but this is likely attributable more to the limitations inherent in the source material rather than the transfer process). I suspect that the image has been subjected to some grain removal, but the results are not so intrusive as on some of Disney's other recent Blu-ray efforts. The DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio offers improved fidelity overall compared to the previous DVD and good surround effects are quite apparent in the film's musical numbers. Highly recommended.
The 1989 British miniseries Traffik won an international Emmy and later inspired Steven Soderbergh's good but inferior remake, the Oscar-winning film Traffic.
I reviewed Acorn Media's original DVD release of Traffik here and found it to be a gripping thriller about the international drug trade well worth the investment of time for its six 56-minute episodes. Sadly, the DVD transfer was workable at best, characterized by excessive grain and a hazy image with appreciable edge effects. So it was with some anticipation that I took a look at Acorn Media's new release of Traffik: 20th Anniversary Edition. Unfortunately I have to report that this remastered version looks little better than the original release, so possibly we are at the mercy of limited source material here, likely 16mm originals as was typical of British series of that era. The image continues to be soft and blurry virtually throughout and will only look at all presentable on smaller screens. The mono sound is quite workable throughout. The new addition does offer improvement in respect to its supplementary material. Most welcome is the addition of the extended British version of the series' sixth and final episode. It's about 12 minutes longer and contains individual sequences that are longer and more revealing than allowed for in the 51-minute version that was on the first DVD release (it was the one used for the series' TV presentation on PBS). The new release also carries over the interview with the writer and producer that appeared on the previous DVD edition as well as several other minor extras.