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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Christmas 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, that 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 in 2005.

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 [1979] and Bill Murray's Scrooged [1988]). 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.

Scrooge (1935)

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.

Scrooge (1951)

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.

Scrooge (1970)

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 classics.


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. The Classic 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 releases.

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 Astaire’s 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, Finian’s 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).


Best Wishes

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.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com

P.S. Keep your eyes peeled for one final classic reviews round-up this year.


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