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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #42 and New Announcements

I'm kicking off the new year with a focus on reviews of product from the smaller independent companies releasing DVDs. Included in my coverage are VCI's Showtime USA Jubilee Collection, Battling with Buffalo Bill, and White Eagle; Grapevine Video's double bill of Horace Takes Over/The Last Three; Restored Serials Super Restoration Corp's Young Eagles, and reelclassicDVD's The Our Gang Collection: Volume One, Two, and Three. I've also had the opportunity to look at MGM's release of The Young Savages, Fox's third attempt at An Affair to Remember, the Sony two-disc release of Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, and Warner Bros.' release of Othello. My western itch is scratched with a look at Gunsmoke: Season Two, Volume 1 and Rawhide: Season Two, Volume 2, both from Paramount. That's a total of 14 DVD releases reviewed for your pleasure and hopefully edification.

As usual, I also present a summary of the latest classic announcements. The database has been updated accordingly.


Reviews

VCI has dipped into the Kit Parker Collection again and this time brought us four double feature volumes that it collectively bills as the Showtime USA Jubilee Collection. Each double bill is also available separately.

Showtime USA Jubilee Collection

The material on these discs consists of feature films from the late-1940s/early-1950s that are compilations of vaudeville acts from that era or immediately preceding it. In some instances a rather crude plot has been developed in which the various acts have been interspersed (Kentucky Jubilee on Volume 4, Holiday Rhythm on Volume 3, Square Dance Jubilee on Volume 2). In others, the acts are simply presented on stage with an emcee hosting the show (Varieties on Parade on Volume 1, Hollywood Varieties on Volume 3). While the variety of acts, some of which are very entertaining, is the main draw of these films, various guest stars including the likes of Roddy McDowell, Jackie Coogan, Tom Neal, Lyle Talbot, Don Barry, Jean Porter, and James Ellison, make welcome appearances. The gamut of performances presented is staggering, including trick cyclists, jugglers, acrobats, tap dancers, singers, bands, and comedy routines. Of course, not all are great, but the overall average is high making each film (typically clocking in at about 65 minutes) easy to take. The original release of such films was likely partially a response to the advent of television and the popularity of its variety shows. Some of the compilations certainly remind one of the Ed Sullivan Show. VCI has done a fine job in showcasing these films. They are appearing on home video for the first time in any format and they look very pleasing, offering generally crisp images with fine gray scales and good image detail. The mono sound is also in good shape. Audio commentaries by the likes of Richard Roberts, Brent Walker, and Randy Skretvedt - provided for most of the titles - are informative though slightly repetitive when taken as a whole. Short subjects, trailers, and photo galleries round out the supplements. Recommended.

VCI has also released the latest entries in its continuing series of serials - 1941's White Eagle and 1931's Battling with Buffalo Bill.

White EagleBattling with Buffalo Bill

Columbia's White Eagle is a good example of the vast gulf between the superior serial product being issued by Republic at the time and most of that of its two rivals, Columbia and Universal. Starring a rather tired-looking Buck Jones as the title character, it relates the story of a man raised by Indians after his father, a cavalry officer, was killed in an Indian raid. He works to bring peace between whites and Indians, but has to contend with a gang leader (James Craven) who has reasons to destroy that peace. The story in itself is predictable, but its real downfall is the mediocre execution of its action sequences and wooden acting by too many of the players including Jones. Columbia trots out the same motley collection that appear in virtually all of its Charles Starrett westerns of the time - the likes of Charles King, John Merton, and Jack Ingram. The serial's only real life comes from some fine scenery chewing by James Craven and the always-reliable Raymond Hatton as Jones' sidekick. The serial is delivered on two discs and looks presentable if somewhat soft at times. The mono sound is workable too. The only extras are three serial trailers (for Oregon Trail, Riders of Death Valley, and Adventures of Red Ryder - all better serials than this one). Universal's Battling with Buffalo Bill, even with Universal's typical reliance on its stock Indian footage, is a superior serial in terms of the energy it conveys and the likable and authoritative work of Tom Tyler as Buffalo Bill. The story involves the efforts of gambler Jim Rodney (Francis Ford) to seize control of a gold strike while Buffalo Bill struggles to bring Rodney to justice. The serial has an appealing raw western look to it and also displays some interesting camera placement and movement throughout. Cliffhanger endings and resolutions are perfunctory, but there is a spoken narrative introduction to each chapter that's a little different from the norm. Look for the likes of Yakima Canutt and Joe Bonomo among the many familiar faces in the supporting cast. The serial looks similar in its presentation quality on DVD (a single disc only) to that of White Eagle though perhaps marginally softer. The sound is acceptable and the supplements are the same three serial trailers. If you're interested in taking a flyer on one of these serials, Battling with Buffalo Bill is the one I'd recommend.

Last autumn's announcement, from Grapevideo Video, of the December release of a double bill of a couple of low budget wartime comedies offered some promise of perhaps uncovered gems. Unfortunately, with some minor caveats, the promise is not fulfilled. The two films are Horace Takes Over, a 1942 Supreme Pictures production distributed by Monogram, and The Last Three, a 1943 Hal Roach production distributed by United Artists.

Horace Takes Over/The Last Three

Horace Takes Over, originally released as One Thrilling Night, concerns a newly-wed small-town couple (Horace and his wife Millie) who spend their wedding night in a New York hotel prior to Horace being inducted into the army the following day. Their adventures include the appearance of a body first in their bed and later in Millie's steamer trunk, run-ins with a gang of crooks, and the "helpful" assistance of the hotel's house detective. The problem with all this is the plot's predictability, one unleavened by any directorial inspiration by Monogram stalwart William Beaudine. Only some mild flashes of wit by John Beal in the title role and the welcome appearance of the likes of Tom Neal as the gangster boss and Warren Hymer as the house detective allow one to make it through the film's 66-minute running time. The Last Three, also known as That Nazty Nuisance or simply Nazty Nuisance, was one of Hal Roach's streamliners (short streamlined features clocking in at about three-quarters of an hour in length). The film is a send-up of the Axis leaders (Booby Watson as Hitler, Joe Devlin as Mussolini, Johnny Arthur as General Suki Yaki) and is a sequel to Roach's 1942 film The Devil with Hitler. The film's main objective is that of making the Axis leaders look ridiculous. It's quite successful in doing so, but the plot itself is so ridiculous that the whole experience is merely tiresome and yields virtually no laughs after the smiles occasioned by the initial appearance of the Axis trio (and a few others such as Goebbels and Goering). The material would have been far more effective edited down into a two-reeler at most. The Last Three is much the better-looking of the two features on Grapevine's release, offering a fairly good grayscale and generally good contrast and image detail. Horace Takes Over is workable but not nearly as sharp as the other feature, being rather dark with poor shadow detail. The mono sound on both is acceptable.

Restored Serials Super Restoration Corp.'s latest offering is Young Eagles, a 12-chapter 1934 serial independently produced and distributed by Romance Productions.

Young Eagles

Officially endorsed by the Boy Scouts of America at the time of its original release, the serial details the adventures of two young scouts who win a trip to South America to visit with scouting organizations there. While en route, they and their pilot are stranded in the Central American jungle when their plane crashes during a violent storm. The boys and the pilot become separated and each tries to make their way to safety (with a secret treasure thrown into the mix) while fighting off wild animals, Mayan Indians, a nefarious Greek trader, and a gang of bandits. Obviously produced on a shoestring, the serial unfortunately fails to capitalize on a decent story that offers plenty of opportunity for action and adventure if not a surplus of logic. The action sequences aren't staged with much inspiration and the chapter cliffhangers are uninventive and perfunctorily resolved. The first chapter is the best thing about the serial, reflecting the fact that it was the only part directed by serial veteran Spencer Gordon Bennet. (Lesser lights Vin Moore and Edward Lavier directed the rest.) The serial has three main characters, all of whom are decently cast and fairly likable (especially Bobby Cox as a rather chubby scout who against type is a take-charge type of guy rather than the butt of jokes that such characters often are), but there is no single villain of any lasting impact, merely a succession of enemies seemingly pulled out of a hat at times. Restored Serials' two-disc DVD presentation (mastered and replicated on TDK Armor discs) is not in the same league as their previous offerings such as The Green Archer. The source material is obviously not great and despite Restored Serials' efforts, the results offer a rather soft image that is frequently subject to bluming and mediocre image detail. The mono sound is workable, but often characterized by background noise. Supplements on the discs include archival footage on Boy Scout founder Lord Baden Powell and Boy Scout advocate Teddy Roosevelt, and some very entertaining DVD-ROM content comprising the serial's pressbook and several lobby card and still reproductions.

Recently added to Reelclassicdvd's eclectic collection of silent (mostly) and sound rarities are The Our Gang Collection: Volume One, Two, and Three. Each volume contains five Our Gang silent two-reelers from the 1923-1927 period.

Our Gang Collection: Volumes One, Two & Three

Volume One has Derby Day (1923), Big Business (1924), Monkey Business (1926), War Feathers (1926), and Love My Dog (1927). Volume Two offers The Sun Down Limited (1924), Shootin' Injuns (1925), Good Cheer (1926), Shivering Spooks (1926), and The Fourth Alarm (1926). Volume Three has Back Stage (1923), The Buccaneers (1924), It's a Bear (1924), High Society (1924), and The Mysterious Mystery (1924). The Hal Roach Our Gang comedies totaled 221 films, made over the period 1922 to 1944. Of these, the early Pathe releases from 1922-mid 1926 and the MGM sound releases from mid 1930-1937 are generally the most entertaining. In this respect, each of the three volumes offered by ReelclassicDVD offers some very good content. Derby Day (the gang decide to stage their own "horse" race after seeing the real thing) and Big Business (the gang open their own barber shop) are the class of Volume One, each offering inventive bits of business and genuine belly-laughs against the background of children's recreation of the adult world. The absence of Mickey Daniels (generally the leader of the gang and a real personality) hurts both War Feathers and Love My Dog. Volume Two starts off with a bang with The Sun Down Limited in which the gang decide to start their own train line after being evicted from the local railyards. Shivering Spooks offers some inventive riffs on the ghosts and crooks theme, an overused one even for 1926. Good Cheer, a Christmas-themed tale, is also a plus with its pleasing blend of comedy and pathos. Volume Three has two top-notch Our Gang comedies in High Society (in which the gang manage to reduce a mansion to a shambles) and The Mysterious Mystery (the gang are a team of detectives on the trail of a kidnapper). In both, Mickey Daniels is in top form and there is careful attention to detail for most of the comedy sequences. ReelclassicDVD's presentations are quite good for this material. There are plenty of scratches and debris, but the images are generally clear and fairly sharp. The original music scores, written and performed by Ben Model for each short, are appropriate and well rendered on the discs. All three volumes are recommended.

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