Classics, New Announcements, and Christmas Greetings
Last year at this time, I wrote a column discussing a number of the
Christmas-themed movies that were made during the Hollywood Golden
Age. For the most part,
column is still quite current and I encourage you to take a
look at it. There are a few minor updates to the information
contained in it, as follows:
Most of the cartoons on Cute Cavalcade
of Classic Christmas Cartoons (1933-1959) from Whirlwind
and on Cartoon Crazys: Christmas
(1933-1954) from Wellspring can also be found on the Roan Group disc
entitled A Very Classic Christmas
issued in 2000. The image and sound quality of the content is not
much of an improvement over the Whirlwind or Wellspring efforts, but
the Roan disc may be a little easier to find. Some of the Fleischer
cartoons (such as Somewhere in Dreamland)
can also be found on VCI's ambitious two-disc compilation of
Fleischer material aptly called Somewhere
in Dreamland. That's currently the source of the
best-looking Fleischer cartoons on DVD. Those interested should,
however, take note that VCI is apparently in the process of
commissioning an even further restored version for possible release
The 1936 Three Godfathers
film with John Wayne did not appear in 2004 and has not yet been
formally announced for 2005 although it is known that a DVD transfer
has been done by Warner Bros.
Beyond Tomorrow (1940) has
surfaced once again, this time in the form of one of those Legend
Films colourizations that are distributed by Fox. Legend calls its
version Beyond Christmas, but
neither the new title nor the colour adds anything to the original
black and white film which you're better off seeking out from VCI.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) is
of course now available from Warner Bros. in a stunning two-disc set
that shows off the pleasures of Warners' Ultra Resolution process as
applied to Technicolor films.
VCI has reissued its disc of the 1951 version of Scrooge
(see full review further on in the column). The transfer appears
little changed from the company's previous release.
The latter started me thinking about all the sound versions of
Dickens' A Christmas Carol
that have been filmed and I thought it might be worthwhile to go
over the more significant ones in a bit of detail.
There have been four live-action sound versions filmed under the
title Scrooge, in 1935, 1951,
1970, and in 1978, the latter one made for television. The 1951 film
is the famous British Alastair Sim version, released in the United
States under the title A Christmas Carol.
That title has also been used for 15 other versions, the majority of
which were made for television. They appeared in 1938, 1943 (one of
the first experimental television broadcasts), 1947 (TV), 1949 (TV),
1950 (TV), 1953 (TV), 1971, 1977 (TV), 1981 (TV), 1982 (TV), 1984
(TV), 1994 (TV), 1999 (TV), 2000 (TV), and in 2004 (TV). Some of
these are updated versions of the story (e.g., the 2000 one) and of
course there are other updated versions under different titles (most
notably Henry Winkler's An American
Christmas Carol  and Bill Murray's Scrooged
). There are also numerous renditions of the story built
around animated or celebrity figures, such as Mister
Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962), Rich
Little's Christmas Carol (1978), Mickey's
Christmas Carol (1983), The
Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), and the like.
Of the various live-action films, the ones most frequently seen and
those that try to retain the period feel are the following: the
British 1935 version starring Sir Seymour Hicks as Ebenezer Scrooge,
the 1938 MGM version starring Reginald Owen, the 1951 British
version starring Alastair Sim, the 1970 British musical version
starring Albert Finney, the 1984 American TV version starring George
C. Scott, and the 1999 TV version starring Patrick Stewart. All but
the 1938 one are available on DVD in Region 1.
Sir Seymour Hicks was no stranger to playing Scrooge as he had
performed the role both on stage and in an earlier silent film
version. He's pretty much the whole show in this rather stark
British filming of the classic tale, offering an at times
depressingly grim portrayal of Scrooge. It's one that fits a
similarly grim and grimy portrait of 19th century London although
it's unclear whether the look is by design or dictated by a tight
budget. The rest of the cast pales in comparison to Hicks and in
some cases, the various characters are rather hammily acted. The
story is briskly told at 78 minutes. This is a version worth seeing,
but be prepared for its unevenness. The DVD version to get is the
2002 Image release. That doesn't mean that it offers a pristine copy
of the film. Far from it, it looks very worn with numerous scratches
and debris and sports an image that is rather dark with considerable
problems with shadow detail in the night-time scenes. The mono sound
brings plenty of hiss and crackle with it. At least, however, the
disc offers the complete version. Beware other releases which are 15
to 20 minutes shorter.
A Christmas Carol (1938)
I recently rewatched this MGM version and am inclined to modify my
previously somewhat-negative view of it. Reginald Owen's take on
Scrooge is actually quite palatable as he gives the character more
bite than I had remembered. The production (at 69 minutes, one of
the shortest versions) is more polished looking than the 1951
version - which will appeal to some, but to me tends to diminish the
story's impact. Supporting actors such as Gene Lockhart (Bob
Cratchit), Leo G. Carroll (Jacob Marley), and Ann Rutherford (Ghost
of Christmas Past) are fine but just not as persuasive as those in
the later British version. The black and white film was previously
released on both VHS (beware colourized versions) and laserdisc
(with some nice seasonal extras), but has not made it to DVD. Warner
Bros. holds the rights.
Britain's Renown Film Productions produced this classic version,
much beloved by Scrooge aficionados. Alastair Sim stars as Scrooge
and provides a memorable reading of the role. More so than any other
version, his Scrooge runs the gamut of traits believably from
youthful eagerness to deviousness, crass superiority, unfeeling
indifference, plain meanness, pathetic remorse, and finally giddy
exuberance. It's a tour-de-force performance that never fails to
please no matter how many times you see it. Also notable in the cast
are Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, Hermione Baddeley as Mrs.
Cratchit, Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley and his ghost, Kathleen
Harrison as Mrs. Dilber, Miles Malleson as Old Joe, and Ernest
Thesiger as the undertaker. Look as well for Patrick Macnee playing
the young Jacob Marley. The film's somewhat dark look captures the
atmosphere of the story well and Richard Addinsell's music with its
strident tones is compelling.
VCI has issued a new DVD of the film that apparently offers a
further improved transfer compared to its previous release. (I
didn't have the previous one available for a direct comparison.) The
black and white film is correctly presented full frame and looks
quite good. The source material is the original 35mm negative
discovered some years ago in England. While the disc doesn't offer a
full-blown restoration as evidenced by some speckles and scratches,
the transfer does sport deep blacks and a fairly nice gray scale.
Shadow detail is quite good except for a few very dark scenes.
Occasional grain is apparent. The disc is free of edge effects. The
mono sound is quite clear although characterized by some background
hiss. English and Spanish subtitles as well as optional narrative
for the visually impaired are provided. Supplements consist of
opening and closing comments by Patrick Macnee who is shown in
colour sitting by a Christmas tree, Max Fleischer's Technicolor
cartoon Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
several cast biographies, and a colourized version of the film (the
usual pallid mess). Recommended.
I don't have a great deal of time for this musical version starring
Albert Finney. See my previous review here. While Finney is fine as
Scrooge, the story doesn't lend itself to a musical treatment and in
any event, the songs used are eminently forgettable for the most
part. Paramount's DVD looks very nice though.
A Christmas Carol (1984)
This leisurely 100-minute television version starring George C.
Scott as Scrooge is the runner-up to the 1951 version for my money.
Although one can hardly help but think, if briefly, of Patton
whenever Scott's on the screen, there's no doubt that Scott's
portrayal is on the money. His unreformed Scrooge is a flinty
reprobate of almost larger-than-life proportions while his redeemed
Scrooge is as good-hearted and spectacularly dressed as any
well-regarded businessman can be. The story's setting is beautifully
conveyed by the lush production which was shot in the historic
English town of Shrewsbury. David Warner is good as Bob Cratchit and
other familiar faces in the cast include Frank Finlay as Marley's
Ghost, Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and
Susannah York as Mrs. Cratchit. Fox released the colour film on DVD
in a correctly framed fullscreen version. It's an excellent transfer
with deep blacks, clean whites and excellent shadow detail. Colours
are bright and accurate. There are no edge effects. The two-channel
surround sound conveys the film's exceptional score with strong
fidelity and some good presence on at least a couple of occasions.
Dialogue is clear. English and Spanish subtitles are provided. There
are no supplements. Recommended.
A Christmas Carol (1999)
The best of the very recent Scrooge efforts is this television
production for Turner Network Television by Hallmark starring
Patrick Stewart. Stewart has some background in playing the role as
he toured in a unique version of the story in which he essayed
multiple roles. As Scrooge, he's quite adequate but not particularly
memorable. His early Scrooge is a rather ill-tempered individual to
whom you'd just like to give a good swat upside the head, but the
transformation at the end of the film is quite creditable. I'm not
sure I like my Scrooges with shaved heads though. The supporting
cast has no standouts; it includes the likes of Richard Grant as Bob
Cratchit, Joel Grey as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Bernard
Lloyd as Marley's Ghost. The production looks quite good with an air
of grayness to much of the story that gradually lifts with Scrooge's
redemption. The Warner Bros. DVD delivers a correctly framed
fullscreen transfer that is average in image quality. Black levels
are good and shadow detail is usually fine. Colours look somewhat
pale at times and there is noticeable grain. The two-channel
surround sound offers reasonable fidelity, some subtle surround
effects, and clear dialogue. There are English and French subtitles
available. Supplements consist of two very brief making-of
featurettes, some cast biographies, and a trailer.
The pick of the Scrooge litter is VCI's release of the 1951
Alastair Sim version, with George C. Scott's recent 1984 effort a
worthy runner-up. Both are readily available on DVD in good-looking
editions and should be part of your collection of Christmas
Some New Announcements
If you've read this far, it's only fair to reward you with some
news of a few new announcements of forthcoming classic releases that
have come in during the rather short period since my last column.
Release Database has been updated accordingly.
Columbia will come through with its biggest release of classic
titles on a single day (at least in my memory) on March 22nd.
Included will be: John Huston's We Were
Strangers (1949), Nicholas Ray's Bitter
Victory (1957), Howard Hawks' Twentieth
Century (1934), Fred Zinneman's Behold
a Pale Horse (1964), and three films directed by Richard
Quine - Strangers When We Meet
(1960), My Sister Eileen
(1955), and It Happened to Jane
(1959). Also due then is a box set of Funny
Girl and Funny Lady.
It appears virtually certain that Criterion will release Young
Mr. Lincoln (1939) as Peter Cowie has reportedly recorded
a commentary on it for the company.
Fox has confirmed the three titles previously announced in this
column for its next wave of Studio Classics. The three releases, all
due February 22nd, are Leave Her to
Heaven, A Letter to Three
Wives, and Return to Peyton
Place. All will be in the original aspect ratio (full
frame, except 2.35:1 anamorphic for Return
to Peyton Place) and carry selections of the usual range
of supplements in the Studio Classics series - commentaries,
biographies, newsreel footage, restoration comparisons, and
trailers. Fox will also release Lost in
Space: Season Three, Volume One on March 1st. And in late
breaking news, Fox has now decided to release Laura
as part of its first wave of film noirs due March 15th. It will
replace House of Bamboo, which
is now delayed until a film noir wave later in the year.
On March 29th, Image will offer The
Twilight Zone: Season Two (original series) and Combat:
Season Three, Operation One and Two.
The date for Laughsmith's previously announced Fatty Arbuckle
collection is now set as April 15th. The company also has future
plans for four collections including Industrial
Strength Keaton, The Mack
Sennett Collection, The W.C.
Fields Collection, and The
Mabel Normand Collection. There is no information on
specific content or projected release dates as yet. Apparently
associated with Laughsmith is a company called Mackinac Media. It
has plans for a number of releases of B and minor A features
originally released from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. See
the database for the specific titles which have been included in the
rumoured releases section. Examples are The
Enchanted Valley (1948, with Alan Curtis), Case
of the Red Monkey (1955, with Richard Conte), Outlaw
Queen (1957, with Andrea King), and Why
Must I Die? (1960, with Terry Moore).
MGM will have more double feature releases in its Midnite Movies
Collection for March 22nd. The titles are: Die
Monster Die!/The Dunwich Horror (1965, Boris Karloff
/1970, Dean Stockwell); Fireball
500/Thunder Alley (1966, Frankie Avalon/1967, Annette
Funicello); The Last Man on Earth/Panic
in Year Zero (1964, Vincent Price/1962, Ray Milland);
The Miniskirt Mob/Chrome and Hot Leather
(1968, Diane McBain/1971, William Smith); Tales
of Terror/Twice Told Tales (1962/1963, both Vincent
Price); Voodoo Island/The Four Skulls of
Jonathan Drake (1957, Boris Karloff/1960, Henry Daniell);
and War Gods of the Deep/At the Earth's
Core (1965, Vincent Price/1976, Peter Cushing).
The date for Milestone's release of Piccadilly
(1929) is currently set as March 1st, via Image.
MVD (Music Video Distributors) will offer The
Best of Laurel and Hardy Volume One on February 15th. It
will contain five shorts in which either Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy
appeared individually (not as the famous team): The
Home Wrecker, The Four Wheeled
Terror, Roughest Africa,
Crazy to Act, and The
Paper Hanger's Helper.
Paramount has announced Hogan's Heroes:
The Complete First Season for a March 15th release, and
Lady in a Cage (1964, with
Olivia De Havilland) and Save the Tiger
(1973, with Jack Lemmon) for March 29th.
Kevin Brownlow of Photoplay Productions has reportedly indicated
that both the Unknown Chaplin
and Hollywood series will be
making their way to DVD, contrary to earlier fears that rights
issues might prevent that happening. There is no information on
possible timing as yet, or whether these will be Region 1 or 2
VCI will have The Littlest Hobo TV
Series: The Collection #1 (12 episodes) on January 25th.
Warner Bros. offers another package of goodies on March 15th,
highlighted by two-disc SEs for Easter
Parade and The Band Wagon
both restored using the Ultra Resolution process. Both will also
offer commentaries - by Fred Astaires daughter on Easter
Parade and by Liza Minnelli on The
Band Wagon. Easter Parade
will include the American Masters documentary Judy
Garland: By Myself. The other three titles being released
in single-disc editions will be The Bells
Are Ringing, Finians
Rainbow, and a remastered Brigadoon.
All five will be available as individual purchases or part of the
Broadway to Hollywood: Classic Musical
Collection box set.
In Region 2 news. Carlotta's plans for 2005 include a dozen or more
titles. Kiss of Death (1947),
Night and the City (1950), and
Cry of the City (1948) will
appear in July either singly or in a box set. Anne
of the Indies (1951), The Wild
River (1960), and Bigger Than
Life (1956) will appear in August either singly or in a
box set. November will bring The Shooting
(1967) and Ride in the Whirlwind
(1965) either singly or in a box set, as well as Bedazzled
and Two for the Road (both
1967) either singly or in a box set and The
Girl Can't Help It (1956).
Finally, let me take this opportunity to thank all my readers for
perusing these columns throughout 2004 and in many cases, taking the
time to write with comments, corrections, additions, and questions.
Your feedback is greatly encouraged and much appreciated. Merry
Christmas to all of you and best wishes for a happy and healthy New
Year, not to mention plenty of great new classic releases.
P.S. Keep your eyes peeled for one final classic reviews round-up