|Classic Reviews Round-Up #59 and New Announcements
Welcome to the latest instalment of Classic Coming Attractions. This time, I offer further information on classic releases available outside Region 1 along with the usual new announcements and 11 classic reviews. The latter include Darn Good Westerns: Volume 2, The Green Hornet, and The Green Hornet Strikes Again! (all from VCI); Barricade, Castle on the Hudson, and Carson City (all from the Warner Archive); The Exiles (from Milestone); The Claudette Colbert Collection (from Universal); the Universal Cult Horror Collection (from TCM); and Zorro: The Complete First Season and The Complete Second Season (from Disney).
As usual the Classic Announcements database has been updated with this column's new announcements, and I've updated the Blu-ray Release List as well.
I hope you'll enjoy it all.
Classic Titles Available Outside of Region 1
As mentioned in my last column, I've spent some time investigating titles available in other regions that have not been released in Region 1. The emphasis has been on films that were originally American or British productions. To date, I've assembled a table of these titles that now extends to over 500 films and so far, my focus has been mainly on Region 2, but some Region 4 releases have been included. Some very useful input has been provided by several readers, including Colin McGuigan, Juan Carlos Bartolomei, Marcel Hanke, Rick Kraemer, and Garry Armstrong, and I thank them again for their help. I invite you to take a look at the first cut of the table, which is available as a Word file here and I welcome any corrections, additions, or suggestions that anyone may care to offer. I have not had the opportunity as yet to analyze the table in any depth, but it is obvious from a quick perusal that many classic titles from Fox, Universal, RKO, and Warner Bros. are available to those who care to seek them out. There are a number of new titles coming over the next six months that are not yet available in Region 1 on DVD or as Blu-ray releases. They have been included in the table, but they can also be found summarized at the end of the New Announcements section further along in this column.
VCI's Darn Good Westerns: Volume 2 highlights Allied Artists' Shotgun (1955, starring Sterling Hayden) and the Fox release of Massacre (1956, starring Dane Clark) and then adds in four other titles as supplements: Three Desperate Men (1951), Outlaw Women (1951), Deputy Marshal (1949), and Four Fast Guns (1959).
As it turns out it's the latter four that provide the set's greatest interest. Deputy Marshal never tries to be anything other than what it is - a competent, entertaining B western that offers a good story concerning the bad guys' efforts to take over a ranch situated on a future railroad right-of-way when a deputy U.S. marshal on the trail of two outlaws stumbles onto the situation. The plot camouflages its resolution well and Jon Hall, in the title role, is the appealing and unpretentious star of the show. Equally enjoyable is the appearance of a couple of veteran B western stars, Dick Foran and Russell Hayden, as the possible chief bad guys. Frances Langford sings a couple of pleasant songs and the film also benefits from some decent action and location work on the Iverson Ranch as well as the appearance of familiar character players such as Clem Bevans, Joe Sawyer, and Kenne Duncan. The film is presented full frame as originally released and looks quite good. The black and white image is sharp and nicely detailed with only some speckles and the odd scratch in evidence. The mono sound, as on all the films, is quite workable. Four Fast Guns finds a man on the run arriving in a town that offers to pay him to clean it up. He finds that he has to face and defeat three hired gunmen, one of whom is his brother, if he is to complete the job. There's nothing particularly novel here and the film is rather statically directed. James Craig, who had seen better days as a contract player at MGM in the 1940s, stars, and displays some reasonable energy and there's decent support from several recognizable supporting players - Edgar Buchanan, Martha Vickers, Brett Halsey, and Richard Martin. The surprise is the B&W film's investment in CinemaScope although director William J. Hole Jr.'s use of it could have been more imaginative. VCI does give us a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer, but its sharpness is inconsistent. Black levels are a little weak and there's noticeable speckling and some debris. It's workable on a smaller screen, but those with large displays will be somewhat disappointed. Three Desperate Men stars Preston Foster and Jim Davis in an interesting tale of three brothers framed for a whole raft of crimes they didn't commit. The film lasts a tidy 69 minutes, provides some good action and uses some nice running inserts for the various riding sequences. Best of all, it avoids a conventional B western story line and denouement. The full frame B&W image is workable at best. Sharpness could be better and the image suffers on larger screens. Outlaw Women provides a twist as it focuses on a town run by women with the reliable Marie Windsor playing the head honcho. Unfortunately the film doesn't do a lot with the offbeat angle as it merely manages some rather conventional storylines about outlaw guys trying to muscle in and a gambler who wants to take over the town for himself. Still the images of women gunslingers and Windsor's strong performance make it all at least palatable. Unfortunately, the film's Trucolor image has not aged well. The full frame transfer frequently looks pink and sharpness is lacking. Shotgun, in which lawman Sterling Hayden sets out to track down a man who killed his friend and mentor with a shotgun blast fired at close range, has a fairly strong story and nice use of location work in Sedona. Unfortunately, its starring cast members either don't seem particularly interested (Hayden and Yvonne De Carlo) or are miscast (the usually reliable Zachary Scott here wasted in a small role as a bounty hunter who suffers a gristly demise). The film was shot in Technicolor, but VCI's 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation suffers from inconsistency in colour fidelity and sharpness throughout. Massacre's title pretty much tells the tale of the film's plot and also aptly describes the film's quality. It's set in Mexico where federal troops attempt to stop the distribution of rifles to a band of Yaqui Indians. Looking rather embarrassed as Mexican officers heading up the troop are Dane Clark and James Craig. A minor diversion is provided by an energetic performance by Marta Roth as the wife of the suspected rifle dealer, but that's the only thing remotely of interest in the film. The plot spirals down to a depressing end that leaves you longing to have the 76 minutes you've just invested back. It's easily the poorest film in the set. The 1.85:1 anamorphic colour transfer is quite inconsistent in colour fidelity and brightness. Image sharpness is also frequently at issue. The mono sound is workable. An audio interview with Robert Lippert Jr., producer of the film, does provide some interesting information on the production's difficulties. Despite the rather mediocre images on display in this set, western fans will find enough of interest here to warrant a rental.
After a fine performance in Saturday's Children, a film that temporarily lifted him out of the gangster roles that Warners had seemed content to keep him consigned to but one that didn't do particularly well at the box office, John Garfield found himself back in the big house in 1940's Castle on the Hudson.
The film was a very close remake of 20,000 Years in Sing Sing which had appeared in 1933 and starred Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis. Garfield of course had the Tracy role of Tom Gordon, an arrogant gangster so sure of himself that when he is sent to Sing Sing, he expects preferential treatment. He doesn't get it from Warden Long (Pat O'Brien) who runs a tight but humane ship that eventually softens Gordon's attitude to the point where he avoids participating in a jailbreak planned by a college-educated inmate (Burgess Meredith). Then Gordon's girlfriend (Ann Sheridan) is seriously injured in a car accident and Warden Long gives him an overnight pass to see her on the condition that Gordon return of his own free will. Garfield certainly gives an intense and generally enthusiastic performance, but it's one that was almost becoming a stereotype for Garfield after only a few short years at Warners. Ann Sheridan is good as his girlfriend and Burgess Meredith's work makes his role one of the film's most memorable characters. The direction by Anatole Litvak is fairly transparent, though his assignment to the film seems like a bit of a comedown after his previous efforts (Confessions of a Nazi Spy, The Sisters, and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse). Overall, Castle on the Hudson is a good remake, but offers nothing to make one forget the original's high standard. The Warner Archive transfer is quite strong, perhaps reflecting some restoration work that may have been done in anticipation of a Garfield box set that had at one time been in the works. Image sharpness and detail are quite good, and speckling and debris are minor. The mono sound is clear and virtually free from hiss. There are no supplements. A must for Garfield fans of course (and Ann Sheridan devotees too), but otherwise certainly worth a rental.
The Exiles is hardly the stuff of which dreams are made for classic film enthusiasts, but it contains images of late 1950s Los Angeles that I suspect are priceless for the time capsule they offer for a place that no longer exists.
The film is an independently made effort by Kent Mackenzie that documents the lives of young Native American men and women living in the Bunker Hill district of the city. Basing his effort on interviews with the actual participants and their friends, Mackenzie fashioned a film with an almost documentary-like feel that follows a group of young transplants from Southwest reservations over a 12-hour period one night. The activities they spend their time on are prosaic - flirting, drinking, smoking, dancing, going to movies, and fighting, but the environment they pass through is mesmerizing in its gritty detail and reminder of times (though barely 50 years old) effectively long past. On the other hand, the mores that the film depicts convey a distinct sense of sadness that in that respect at least, little has really changed. The focus of the film is on Yvonne and her husband Homer - their home seems to be base of sorts for their friends who seem to have little interest in doing other than drinking and carousing. Homer seems little moved to improve his situation either and Yvonne is the only one who engenders any sympathy. She is frequently left to herself to spend her time at the movies as she dreams of a better life for her unborn child. Director Mackenzie presents all this in a very matter-of-fact style, with little suggestion of judgment one way or another. The only sympathy for the natives' situation arises through the depiction of events that imply a longing for a life left behind - the reading of a letter from home, or the group's congregation with others to engage in tribal chanting in the hills above the city. The DVD release of The Exiles comes from Milestone in a two -disc set. Disc one contains the 73-minute film presented with a very strong full frame transfer based on a restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The resulting image is remarkably clean and quite crisp with deep blacks and generally good contrast. The mono sound is clear although it seems somewhat disconnected from the screen at times, likely an artifact of the budgetary restrictions on the original production which resulted in after-the-fact dubbing of the actors' lines. The package of supplements that Milestone has assembled is perhaps the company's best effort yet for one of its DVD releases. Included on disc one are an audio commentary with director Sherman Alexie and film critic Sean Axmaker; Kent Mackenzie USC graduate short Bunker Hill 1956; excerpts from The Exiles that Thom Anderson's Los Angeles Plays Itself that utilize footage from The Exiles; and audio coverage of The Exiles restoration's opening night at UCLA. Disc two contains three short films by Mackenzie; two short films by other directors that depict Bunker Hill; a short film, courtesy of the Library of Congress believed to be the first Native American made film; an audio interview with Alexie and Axmaker that duplicates a bit of their audio commentary; an episode of the Leonard Lopate radio show that includes Alexie and film-maker Charles Burnett; a stills gallery; and extensive DVD-ROM content including a number of scripts for The Exiles. Recommended.
Barricade is a Warner Bros. western released very early in 1950 that is essentially a remake of The Sea Wolf with Raymond Massey, Dane Clark, and Ruth Roman taking the roles originally played by Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, and Ida Lupino respectively and transferring the story from aboard ship in black and white to a gold mine in the west in colour.
As remakes go, it's not a bad effort at all. The story has been pared down and is presented in a brisk 75 minutes. Massey plays Boss Kruger who runs a gold mine that he has stolen from his brother on the backs of criminals and fugitives whom the brutal Kruger keeps as virtual prisoners. Into this situation come Bob Peters (Dane Clark) and Judith Burns (Ruth Roman) - both fugitives themselves, and Aubrey Milburn (Robert Douglas) who later proves to be a lawyer for the son of Kruger's murdered brother. Kruger and the equally strong willed Peters are soon at odds. With Peters eventually leading a revolt of the miners against Kruger that results in Kruger being trapped and apparently killed in the collapsed mine. Peters leaves with Judith for a new life, but events conspire to cause Peters to return leading to a final confrontation with Kruger. Raymond Massey is the best thing in the film as he delivers a suitably cold-blooded and sadistic portrayal of Kruger. The rest of the cast seems lightweight in comparison although Dane Clark's work is strong enough to make him a believable opponent. Director Peter Godfrey executes the action scenes well. The Warner Archive release is full frame as originally presented. The image is quite crisp and detail is good while the colour seems quite accurate though just a little muted overall. Although they're not distracting, there are noticeable speckles, scratches, and other debris. The mono sound is in good shape. There are no supplements. Recommended.
For much of the 1950s, Randolph Scott alternated his western films between Warner Bros. and Columbia. The Columbia outings are generally regarded as the superior ones, with the Warner films being somewhat more formulaic in nature though still for the most part quite entertaining. Fitting nicely in the latter category is 1952's Carson City, which Warners released as its first film in WarnerColor, the studio's in-house version of Ansco Color.
In a role originally intended for but turned down by Errol Flynn, Scott plays railroad engineer Jeff Kincaid who is persuaded to take the job of constructing a new railway line through the difficult terrain between Virginia City and Carson City. The impetus to build the line comes from a banker who tires of the frequent holdups of stagecoachs carrying gold bullion from mines in the region. Raymond Massey plays one of the miners who for reasons of his own opposes the new rail line. It only takes about ten minutes to determine exactly what's going to happen in this film, but the pleasure is in the execution. Andre De Toth (in his first of four Scott westerns at Warners) directs and keeps things moving at a brisk pace with some very well staged action sequences involving wagons and stagecoaches (particularly the opening robbery and the twist at its end) as well as around the railway blasting operations. Randolph Scott delivers his usual sturdy performance and Massey along with Lucille Norman, Richard Webb, James Millican, and William Haade provide quite competent support. Massey's work has suggestions of his typically semi-demented bad guy portrayal, but he generally eschews it here in favour of a more refined personage. The Warner Archive offering is full frame as originally presented and it is most pleasing. The Technicolor image is bright with very good colour fidelity. Image sharpness and detail are both very good, and speckling and debris are minor. The mono sound is clear. There are no supplements. Carson City is recommended.
I had often read that in the case of the two Green Hornet serials made by Universal in 1940 and 1941 (The Green Hornet and The Green Hornet Strikes Again! respectively), the sequel was much the better of the two.
VCI's recent release of the pair offered a fine opportunity to see for myself, and after viewing both, I would concur that the sequel is the superior product. Both, however, offer good entertainment value and are in the upper echelon of the serials produced by Universal. The Green Hornet character was a creation of George Trendle and writer Fran Striker, and featured on a popular radio series of the time before being optioned for the serials by Universal. The Hornet was the alter ego of newspaper publisher/editor Britt Reid who used the Hornet guise of a mask and gas gun to fight crime in a major metropolitan area, aided by his sidekick Kato and a seemingly jet-propelled car called the Black Beauty. In the first Green Hornet serial, the Hornet must battle a syndicate of a dozen men who each run a separate racket in the city under the umbrella of an unknown leader. In the 13-chapter serial, each of these men are eliminated by the Green Hornet one at a time until he can turn his attention to the mastermind in the last chapter. Each chapter is well developed with its own storyline and some good action utilizing various chases and fistfights. The individual cliffhanger endings are somewhat prosaic, however, and rather perfunctorily resolved in each of the following chapters. The serial's largest disappointment is the casting of Gordon Jones as Britt Read. Jones is too much of a lightweight to lend much gravitas to his Reid portrayal. It is in this regard particularly that The Green Hornet Strikes Again! excels. Warren Hull takes over as Britt Reid and he is a much more serious and convincing serial hero. Hull was an experienced and rather decent actor with almost 30 titles under his belt (including the Mandrake the Magician serial) before he played the Green Hornet. In the Hornet sequel, his Britt Reid character is once again facing a crime syndicate, this time controlled by arch-crook Crogan. The whole thing is padded out a bit to 15 chapters, but there's plenty of action once again although cliffhanger endings are also again a little weakly resolved. Common to both serials are a number of supporting players portraying the chief associates in the Reid/Hornet world. Keye Luke is quite fine as Kato though one tends to keep thinking of him as Charlie Chan's son, and Lenore Case also excels as Reid's secretary/receptionist. Somewhat annoying is Wade Boteler as bodyguard Michael Oxford, though the problem is more in the part's writing than in the portrayal. Alan Ladd fans are likely aware that Ladd has a small part as a pilot in one chapter of the first serial. VCI's DVD releases (two-disc sets for each serial) have benefited from the company having been able to get Universal's cooperation in providing the original 35mm film elements. Some digital restoration and cleanup was undertaken and the result is two of the better-looking serials available on DVD. The black and white transfers offer rather good detail and overall contrast, and quite clear if not strikingly crisp images. Speckles, scratches and other debris have been nicely minimized. The first serial is slightly the crisper-looking of the two overall. The mono sound is clear with only occasional minor hiss evident. Both serials benefit from a nice set of supplements including thorough background production notes on pamphlets inside the cases. Each serial also includes two episodes of the Green Hornet radio series, a before and after restoration example that's not particularly informative, a photo gallery, and various character and actor biographies, facts, and trivia. Both releases are recommended.
Universal's latest Backlot Series release is The Claudette Colbert Collection, a set of six titles spanning the 1933 to 1947 period.
Previous releases in the Backlot Series have been impressively done and this latest one is no exception. In this set we get three discs with each containing two titles: Three-Cornered Moon (1933) and Maid of Salem (1937); I Met Him in Paris (1937) and Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938); and No Time for Love (1943) and The Egg and I (1947). Only the latter title has previously been released on DVD. For my money, the first disc is the best of the lot. Three-Cornered Moon is a delightful precursor to the golden years of screwball comedy. It's a depression era tale of a rich family who all of a sudden discover they have no money so that all the siblings must seek work. Colbert's character holds the family together while her three brothers (including Wallace Ford and Tom Brown) and Colbert's boy-friend (Hardie Albright) struggle with the new realities of life. The presence of Mary Boland (as the somewhat scattered family matriarch), as always, is a real bonus. Maid of Salem is the only drama in the set and is actually a very strong recounting of the witch trials in early colonial times. Colbert is particularly effective and she is surrounded by an impressive list of well-known supporting players including (Gale Sondergaard, Beulah Bondi, Edward Ellis, Donald Meek, Halliwell Hobbes, Sterling Holloway, Mary Treen, Bonita Granville, Russell Simpson, Louise Dresser, etc.). The film also marks the third of seven teamings of Colbert and Fred Mac Murray, though MacMurray doesn't have a lot to do in this one. The second disc offers a mixed bag. I Met Him in Paris is a rather pleasant comedy in which working-girl Colbert realizes her long-time dream of holidaying in Paris. She leaves her long-time but rather dull boyfriend (Lee Bowman) behind only to find romance with two Americans in Europe (Robert Young and Melvyn Douglas), each of whom takes a different approach in his pursuit of Colbert. The pursuit moves on to Switzerland where Colbert and Douglas both prove rather adept on ice skates. Bluebeard's Eighth Wife has a strong pedigree in actors Colbert and Gary Cooper, director Ernst Lubitsch, and writers Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. The film starts off very strongly with an amusingly staged and written sequence at a department store in Paris where the Colbert and Cooper characters meet over the purchase of a pair of pajamas. Love ensues, at least until it transpires that Cooper's character has been married seven times before. Unfortunately the rest of the film is very contrived and offers little spark of ingenuity, so that the expected outcome comes as a relief more than anything else. The third disc is an improvement on disc two though perhaps not quite the measure of disc one. The Egg and I is of course a very fine film, if rather familiar now in its theme of fish out of water as Colbert and Fred MacMurray move to the country to raise chickens and cash in on the egg market. The property they buy is typically run down and the neighbours are the usually quirky bunch (including Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride appearing on film as Ma and Pa Kettle for the first time), but the stars are so earnest and delightful that the whole thing goes down very easily. No Time for Love is much less well known. Colbert is an ace photographer who is assigned to take some shots of some underground tunneling and the men working on it. She runs afoul of Fred MacMurray who's one of the tunnellers and a much rougher-hewn individual than Colbert's normal circle of literary types and dilettantes. MacMurray is not nearly the smooth, glib character he normally plays and that adds a freshness that elevates the film. Colbert is a pleasure as always and she manages to look beguiling even when covered in mud. Universal has delivered all six films in impressive transfers. All are sharp and nicely detailed with fine sheens of film grain intact. Black levels are generally very good and age seems not to be a factor - the oldest title, Three-Cornered Moon, looks as good as the latest, The Egg and I. The mono sound is in good shape on all titles. The only supplements accompany The Egg and I - a theatrical trailer for that title and a 9-minute featurette that mainly focuses on Colbert's early career. Highly recommended.
The first product of the new relationship between TCM and Universal is the Universal Cult Horror Collection. Let's get the good news dealt with first. Despite the fact that the new TCM/Universal program is being advertised as utilizing a manufactured-on demand (MOD) approach, the five discs included in the set are definitely all pressed DVDs.
According to TCM, most of the releases in the joint program will be MOD (or DVD-Rs) but the odd release such as this first one will utilize pressed discs. The Universal Cult Horror Collection contains five films, one of which is an early Paramount release (Murders in the Zoo, 1933) while the others are all second-tier Universal horror releases (The Mad Doctor of Market Street, 1942; The Strange Case of Doctor Rx, 1942; The Mad Ghoul, 1943; and House of Horrors, 1946). All are short films, coming in at between 60 and 70 minutes, and despite the second feature status of each of them, all offer reasonable entertainment value. Murders in the Zoo is much the best of the bunch as Lionel Atwill portrays a jealous husband who deals with his wife's perceived and actual suitors in bizarre and at times gristly ways. Also in the cast are such familiar players as Randolph Scott, Gail Patrick, and Charles Ruggles. Least of the bunch is House of Horrors with Rondo Hatton in full glory as The Creeper who deals with an artist's critics. The tale is more cringe-worthy than horror-filled and though Martin Kosleck is good as the artist, the presence of the wooden Robert Lowery doesn't help much. The other three titles are much of a piece, featuring good casts (two are headlined by Lionel Atwill and the other by George Zucco), and either murdering criminals (Doctor Rx), turning a man into a zombie (Mad Ghoul), or doing strange experiments on a Pacific island (Market Street). As is typical of Universal's efforts with classic films, the transfers offered (all full frame as originally shown) are all very good - crisp with good contrast and image detail, and a mild sheen of grain. The mono sound is clear although some mild hiss exists on Murders in the Zoo. Supplements comprise a mix of stills, lobby card and poster reproductions, production notes, and trivia. Recommended.