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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Classic Reviews Round-Up #34
The Best of 2006 and New Announcements (Continued)


VCI has been busy mining its relationship with Kit Parker Films to give us a number of interesting if sometimes uneven multiple feature releases. Along with its traditional B western, serial, and other classic offerings, this has resulted in the company being a major source of classic content for collectors.

Long John Silver

I've been remiss in covering many of the company's 2006 second-half releases, so herewith some brief observations. I reviewed an abysmal version of the Robert Newton Long John Silver film for DVD Verdict four years ago, so I looked with interest at VCI's new restoration. The film itself is still a pale follow-up to Newton's work in Treasure Island, but at least it looks presentable now. Based on the restoration comparison on the disc, the new 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is a marked improvement over the faded mess previously available although there's still room for substantial improvement. The latter's unlikely to happen, so if you like this film, this new version is the one to get.

Joe E. Brown Comedy Collector's Set

If film watchers think of comedian Joe E. Brown nowadays, it's likely only because they've recently seen 1959's Some Like It Hot, but enthusiasts know that Brown was big in films in the 1930s when he toiled at Warner Bros. and later worked with independent producer David Loew. Four of his films from the 1936-1938 period are available in the Joe E. Brown Comedy Collector's Set (Earthworm Tractors, Flirting with Fate, The Gladiator, and Wide Open Faces). The wide-mouthed comedian could play broad, boastful characters as well as simple, sincere ones equally well and both are on display in this set. The films are mainly appealing entertainments that fly by in about 70 minutes on average, with Earthworm Tractors (Brown as a fast-talking tractor salesman) the best and Flirting with Fate (Brown as a vaudeville crew manager) the most trying (Leo Carillo is irritating as usual as a bandit chief). The transfers are nothing special, but all are watchable with a reasonably detailed image though rather variable sharpness and a fair bit of debris. Well worth a recommendation.

The Legendary Outlaws Collector's Set

The Legendary Outlaws Collector's Set contains three double feature discs comprising The Great Jesse James Raid, Renegade Girl, The Return of Jesse James, Gunfire, The Dalton Gang, and I Shot Billy the Kid. As usually seems to be the case with these Kit Parker double features (all originally Lippert productions), each disc has one good film and one sub-standard one. The winners are Renegade Girl (with Ann Savage and Edward Brophy, this has a neat urban sensibility and urban speech patterns in a western setting), The Return of Jesse James (well acted tale with John Ireland, Reed Hadley and Ann Dvorak prominent), and The Dalton Gang (fine starring work by the ever-reliable Don "Red" Barry). Five of these films were made in B&W and they all look fairly decent in terms of contrast and sharpness. The one colour film (The Great Jesse James Raid) is in the worst shape with marked unsteadiness, poor colour, and noticeable video grain (the latter also apparent on a couple of the B&W films). There's enough value here for western fans to warrant at least a rental, but those familiar with the Lippert films will know how tolerant they are of those productions (ostensibly minor A productions of the late 1940s/early 1950s, they typically pale in comparison with the B series westerns of the late 1930s/early 1940s).

Western Film Noir, Volume 1

The idea of western film noir is somewhat contentious, but titles such as Blood on the Moon, Colorado Territory, and Pursued are sometimes viewed as typical examples. The films included in VCI's Western Film Noir, Volume 1 are more questionable. Grittiness (Little Big Horn) and elements of the supernatural (Rimfire) seem to be the raisons d'etre for classifying the films as noir, but that's about it. But whether you view the films as western noir or not, there's no denying that they offer pleasing western entertainment. Both are very well acted (the likes of Lloyd Bridges, John Ireland, Reed Hadley, and Marie Windsor appear) and thoughtful films focusing on character development with just enough action interspersed to satisfy the traditional western fan. The transfers are appealing and the supplements are minor but appropriately selected. Recommended.

The George Reeves Double Feature

Now we start a descent into VCI's less appealing recent offerings. The George Reeves Double Feature has obviously been produced because of its timeliness given the resurrection of the Reeves Superman TV series on DVD and the recent theatrical film about him called Hollywoodland. Without that tie-in, however, it might just as reasonably have been called the George Reeves and Ralph Byrd Double Feature as the two actors star as buddies in each film. The two 1948 films are Jungle Goddess and Thunder in the Pines and if each sounds like what the titles suggest, you'd be right. These are strictly second-rate Lippert programmers with clichéd situations and stock footage. Both Reeves and Byrd are competent players who don't appear to take it all too seriously which is a good thing. The transfers are very respectable and the Reeves-inspired supplements are good. It all adds up to a nice George Reeves tribute, but it's too bad the two feature films don't really merit the attention.

King Dinosaur 50s Sci-Fi Double Feature

Much further down the food chain is the King Dinosaur 50s Sci-Fi Double Feature, which pairs King Dinosaur with The Jungle. The former film is a Bert Gordon-directed mess about astronauts discovering a distant planet with various reptiles including a giant iguana, pardon me, dinosaur. The latter film makes a pretense at quality film-making with much of it shot on location in India, but the plot is plodding and the special effects (to create woolly mammoths which terrorize the natives) are decidedly unspecial. On disc, both features look quite good with 1955's King Dinosaur being presented at 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The Jungle is presented full screen as originally shot and retains the original sepia look.

Overland MailRaiders of Ghost City

Finally, to end on a more positive note, two western serials are worth a look - Overland Mail (1942) and Raiders of Ghost City (1944). Both Universal serials have some interest, but Raiders of Ghost City is the more entertaining of the two. Set during the Civil War, it concerns the stealing of gold shipments from the west destined for Washington. A Confederate gang is suspected, but in reality a foreign power is responsible, echoing the film's World War II production era and providing the serial a modest propaganda value. Dennis Moore plays a Secret Service agent tasked with straightening out the matter. Moore is fine as is Wanda McKay as a Wells Fargo agent, but Lionel Atwill is the serial's main attraction playing the leader of the gold raiders very effectively. The 13 chapters have enough decent cliffhangers and action sequences to satisfy serial and western fans and the plot is better played out than many Universal efforts of the time. Overland Mail from 1942 centres on the standard plot of a gang of outlaws dressing as Indians to avert suspicion. The elements of the plot, featuring Lon Chaney Jr. as a lawman sent to discover why the frontier mail delivery is being subverted, are familiar enough to once again allow Universal's frequent use of stock footage. Chaney, however, is not particularly persuasive as the lead player and the 15 chapters really stretch the unimaginative story to the breaking point. Both serials are accorded a two-disc presentation and the image transfers are quite presentable. They're reasonably sharp with some soft patches. Speckles and scratches are obvious but not really obtrusive. Trailers and bios comprise the supplements on both. Raiders of Ghost City rates a recommendation.

Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume One

Warner Bros. had its typical embarrassment of riches to round out 2006. Of most interest to me was the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 1, an offering in the TCM Archives series that contains three films - Waterloo Bridge, Baby Face, and Red-Headed Woman. Surprisingly the set lacks Warners' typical attention to detail as its supplement package includes only an introduction by TCM's Robert Osborne and a trailer for Baby Face. The content of the set's two discs also has been inadvertently flipped compared to how it is referred to on the set packaging and shown in the disc artwork. The three films come from the 1931-1933 part of the pre-Production Code era and are all good examples of what's become known as typical pre-Code film - characterized by extraordinary frankness including suggestively presented nudity, adultery, and prostitution. Baby Face, produced by Warner Bros. - the studio most often associated with pre-Code film - is a quintessential such film. It is represented in this collection by both the original theatrical release version as well as a slightly longer pre-release version recently discovered and restored by the Library of Congress. The film stars Barbara Stanwyck as a young woman who sleeps her way to success in the corporate world using the likes of Donald Cook and a young John Wayne as stepping stones until she meets her match in George Brent. The pre-release version is a little more explicit and has a more appealing ending. Red-Headed Woman is a good match for Baby Face for its treads much the same ground, but adds a slightly light-hearted touch (the difference between the Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Harlow on-screen personas) that reflects the normally glossier MGM influence of the time. Waterloo Bridge is a straight-forward drama of a woman (Mae Clarke) who turns to prostitution when times become tough. A naïve young soldier (Kent Douglass - later known as Douglass Montgomery) falls in love with her, seemingly unaware of her vocation. The film is subtly directed by James Whale and benefits substantially from the superb job that Mae Clarke does with her role. This 1931 version isn't nearly as polished as MGM's later (and excellent) 1940 version with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, but it stands up well in comparison. The video transfers are quite good, offering bright, generally sharp, and reasonably detailed images although with noticeable grain in evidence. The exception is the theatrical version of Baby Face whose sharpness suffers in comparison to the others. The mono sound on all is quite decent, although there is audible hiss present. Highly recommended, although Warners needs to give these films more and better supporting materials for future volumes.

The Tarzan Collection: Volume 2

Meanwhile, the company has followed up its 2005 release of the initial six Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films with a second volume (The Tarzan Collection: Volume 2) that presents the last six titles. All of these were produced by RKO during the 1943-1948 period and are packaged for DVD as three double feature discs. Tarzan Triumphs and Tarzan's Desert Mystery provide World War II heroics while the other four titles (Tarzan and the Amazons/Tarzan and the Leopard Woman and Tarzan and the Huntress/Tarzan and the Mermaids) variously find Tarzan dealing with a secluded jungle tribe, a deadly cult, a gang of poachers, and a pearl-diving community. The interest and entertainment value is generally maintained throughout the period of these six films although the plots tended to become weaker with time. Personally, I find the less glossy RKO look a benefit compared to MGM's cleaned-up jungles. The DVD transfers are fairly consistent with what we saw on the last four films of the Volume 1 offering - generally sharp with some minor speckling and a bit of grain. The exception is the Tarzan and the Huntress/Tarzan and the Mermaids disc, which looks noticeably softer and has more debris. There are no supplements. Recommended for Tarzan fans; others should try a rental.

Classic Comedy Teams Collection

One November Warners release that seems to have passed without much attention is the Classic Comedy Teams Collection. It's comprised of three double feature discs (all the discs are available separately, or at a bargain price when purchased in the set) with each focusing on one of three classic comedy teams (Abbott and Costello in Lost in a Harem and Abbott and Costello in Hollywood; Laurel and Hardy in Air Raid Wardens and Nothing But Trouble; and The Three Stooges in Meet the Baron and Gold Raiders). All the films were originally MGM releases. The Abbott and Costello disc is the best of the three, as the two features represent the duo working near the top of their game. Both titles are fun (A&C in Hollywood particularly, because of the MGM backstage feel with many stars appearing as themselves) with each having several classic A&C routines. The Laurel and Hardy efforts are from the mid-1940s and are among their final films; neither is very inspiring as a whole although there are isolated bits of enjoyable business. The Three Stooges films are curiosities. In Meet the Baron, they're strictly minor support players back (1933) when they were still billed as Ted Healy and his Stooges while they're more prominent (though not consistently so) in Gold Raiders where they co-star in a B-western format with George O'Brien. The 1951 film is the only Stooges feature made after they became really popular in which Shemp appeared. The films look reasonably presentable on DVD offering good image detail though with considerable speckling and some debris. Meet the Baron is the weakest of the six as the image is frequently soft. The mono sound is okay though characterized by varying amounts of hiss and some crackle. Several trailers are the only supplements. The Abbott and Costello disc is the only one worth a recommendation unless you're a Laurel and Hardy or Three Stooges completist.

Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection

Superman and serial fans should be happy with Warners' presentation of the two Superman 15-chapter serials originally made by Columbia in 1948 (Superman) and 1950 (Atom Man Vs. Superman). The package consists of four discs and is titled Superman: The Theatrical Serials Collection. These serials remain quite enjoyable although they would be on no true serial fan's list of the best of the genre. Kirk Alyn stars as Superman and gives a generally pleasing interpretation though his Clark Kent characterization is more persuasive than is his Superman one. Noel Neill is excellent as Lois Lane and she would reprise her role for the TV series. Lyle Talbot gives a good interpretation of Lex Luthor in the second serial. I found the second serial to be the more entertaining of the two, perhaps because I've grown tired of seeing the Superman origins re-enacted and that takes up a quarter of the first serial. Warners offers pleasing image transfers that are fairly sharp on the whole although Superman looks a little more consistent than does Atom Man Vs. Superman. Supplements consist of a short featurette on serials and Superman's place in the genre as well as an excerpt (not directly relevant to the serials) from a new Superman documentary. Recommended.


New Announcements

Well, as I mentioned previously, 2007 is off to a decent start with Fox and Warner Bros. continuing their commitment to the classics. Universal has nothing to report this time out but at least we know they're starting a new classics line next month. Paramount and Sony continue to be puzzles with both seeming more content to reissue titles they came out with long ago rather than dig into the archives for the unreleased films that collectors want. Many other small releasing outfits have tidbits for us this time. The Classic Coming Attractions Database has been updated as usual and sources for this edition include studio press releases and websites, personal contacts, internet newsgroups, online retailers, and DVD news sites (The Digital Bits, Davis DVD, the Home Theater Forum, DVD Times, TVShowsonDVD and inthebalcony.com among others).

As recently reported at inthebalcony.com, AC Comics will bring the 1942 Columbia 15-chapter serial The Secret Code to DVD this spring. There are no further details at present although the company is actively seeking out possible supplementary material.

Alpha has added some 48 titles to its release schedule with about half of them appearing on February 27th and the remainder on March 27th. I haven't had the opportunity to add them to the new release database, but the details can be found at oldies.com. The titles are the usual mix of B westerns (starring Bob Steele, Jack Howie, the Range Busters, the Rough Riders, Johnny Mack Brown, Tim McCoy), 4-episode compilations of classic TV series (Range Rider, Our Miss Brooks, Frontier Doctor, Terry and the Pirates), a serial (The Vanishing Legion) and the feature version of a serial (Tarzan and the Green Goddess derived from the serial The New Adventures of Tarzan), and a number of other genre films (mysteries, comedies).

The first release under Criterion's new Eclipse line, Early Bergman, is set for March 27th and will include five titles, each on its own disc: Torment (1944), Crisis (1946), Port of Call (1948), Thirst (1948), and To Joy (1949). On April 17th, we'll get Jules Dassin's Brute Force (1947) with supplements highlighted by audio commentary by film noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini. Criterion's December revelation that it will release Robinson Crusoe on Mars in the future (no details as to timing or content available yet) has fueled speculation that other much-desired Paramount-owned titles (such as The African Queen and Ace in the Hole) might be forthcoming from Criterion too. That would be great, but it seems more likely that Crusoe is a one-shot effort for a Paramount title to appear on a Criterion DVD, much as it was for its laserdisc release. I'd love to be proven wrong though.

Critics Choice, purveyor of many awful-looking discs, but also a few high quality releases (such as its Hopalong Cassidy and Sergeant Preston sets) will release Sergeant Preston of the Yukon: Season 3 (18 episodes) on February 27th. The Hopalong Cassidy Movie Collection set has been delayed from December 12th to January 16th.

Disney will offer an Ultimate Edition of Peter Pan (1953) on March 6th. Supplements will include: You Can Fly: The Making of Peter Pan; a 1952 featurette - The Peter Pan Story; Camp Never Land: explore Never Land with all-new multi-level games; deleted songs; and In Walt's Words: Walt Disney reveals "Why I Made Peter Pan".

Fantoma Films has announced the January 23rd release of The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume 1. The disc will include the short films Fireworks (1947), Puce Moment (1949), Rabbit's Moon (1950 - the rarely seen 16 minute version), Eaux D'Artifice (1953), and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), all mastered in HD from newly restored elements, with "screen specific" audio commentary on all the films by Anger, rare outtakes and behind-the-scenes images, restoration demonstrations and a 48-page book featuring a written appreciation of Anger by Martin Scorsese, exclusive notes for each film, rare photos, never-before-seen sketches for Anger's unproduced film Puce Women and much more.

Fox will have three literary classics out on April 24th: Les Miserables (1935, with Fredric March and Charles Laughton), Jane Eyre (1944, with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine), and Anna Karenina (1948, with Vivien Leigh). Notably, the 1935 Les Miserables will be accompanied by the 1952 version with Michael Rennie in what will be a two-disc release while the 1948 Anna Karenina release will have the added bonus of the 1915 silent version. On the same date, Fox will also offer six war movies: Tonight We Raid Calais (1943, with Annabella), The Purple Heart (1944, with Dana Andrews), Fixed Bayonets! (1951, with Richard Basehart and directed by Sam Fuller), Sailor of the King (1953, with Jeffrey Hunter), Man in the Middle (1964, with Robert Mitchum), and I Deal in Danger (1966, with Robert Goulet). Fox also has a Tyrone Power collection in the works with a likely summer release. It would include Son of Fury (1942), Captain from Castile (1947), Prince of Foxes (1949), and The Black Rose (1950).

Hermitage Hill Media, a newly formed DVD-producing company, will focus on quality commercial-grade DVD versions of classic serials. Its first offering, set for a January 23rd release and expected to be available through the usual on-line sources, will be the 1935 Universal serial Tailspin Tommy in the Great Air Mystery.

Image will release one Gene Autry film on April 3rd: Home in Wyomin' (1942).

Lionsgate will offer the British film School for Scoundrels (1960, with Alastair Sim) on March 27th. This is another item, like the previously-announced early Hitchcock set coming in February, that results from last summer's deal that saw Lionsgate acquire rights to some 2000-odd Studio Canal films. Apparently box sets of Bridgette Bardot, Jean Renoir, and Jean-Luc Godard are in the pipeline for release in the first half of 2007. A spokesperson for Lionsgate indicated that these releases are "for the fan of classic movies, and we are really trying to target that audience". I guess they forgot that they re-acquired the rights to the Republic library from Paramount. How about targeting the audience of classic fans that would like to see plenty of those titles made available (although only if Lionsgate shows them a little more respect than its Artisan component used to do)?

MGM (via Fox) will re-release On the Beach (1959) on March 6th as part of a promotion of almost a score of more recent science fiction titles. There's no indication as yet whether this will offer any upgrade to the original release. An anamorphic transfer at least would be welcome, although the original widescreen DVD release looked pretty good.

Paramount will reportedly release new re-issue versions of The Greatest Show on Earth, Nevada Smith, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on April 13th although it's unclear if these reissues will offer anything new compared to the original versions. On April 24th, they'll have The Odd Couple: Season One (previously exclusively available through Time-Life). A True Grit: Special Collector's Edition is expected on May 22nd. Now according to the title, there should be plenty of new content with that one although no details have been released.

Shout Factory will release McHale's Navy: Season One on March 20th. The five-disc set will contain all 36 episodes from the 1962-63 debut season as well as a special featurette on a recently-held 45th anniversary cast reunion.

Sony reports that its new SE of Gandhi will be delayed one week to February 20th. The studio has also announced the release of repackaged two-disc versions of The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Guns of Navarone for March 20th, as well as a single disc reissue of The Caine Mutiny. All are designated Collector's Editions. The Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai releases appear to be just repackagings of the originally available two-disc sets. The other two offer new material. In the case of The Guns of Navarone, this means all the supplements of the previous special edition plus an additional audio commentary, two new documentaries and several other new shorter featurettes. For The Caine Mutiny (whose original release sported only a theatrical trailer), there will be a new audio commentary and a new two-part retrospective documentary. Noteworthy also is the cover art which in all cases sports the term "Columbia Classics". Maybe Sony is finally recognizing the value of the Columbia name and maybe there's a possibility that a more aggressive approach to the classic Columbia catalogue may be in the offing. We can hope, anyway! The cynical view would be that this is just a final cash-in on the DVD versions before the titles come to Blu-ray as promised for most of them last year. An interesting baseball double bill will arrive on April 3rd in the form of Kill the Umpire (1950, a very amusing programmer with William Bendix) and Safe at Home! (1962, with appearances by Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris)? I never thought to see either of these films make it to DVD.

Universal's new Cinema Classics line, which kicks off with four titles on February 6th, is currently planned to consist of new waves every three months. That would mean May for the next wave so information on actual titles should be appearing soon.

VCI's February offerings are all scheduled for release on the 27th. First up is Alice in Cartoonland, a collection of 11 of the 57 Walt Disney-produced "Alice" cartoons from 1923-1927 (all transferred from 35mm nitrate negatives). Also included are 3 cartoons from the seldom seen "Life Cartoon Comedy" series, re-titled "Krazy Kid Cartoons" for their 1930 sound reissue. Then VCI collects six of the Cisco Kid westerns starring Gilbert Roland made at Monogram from 1946-1947 in the Cisco Kid Western Collection. The individual titles are: The Gay Cavalier, Beauty and the Bandit, South of Monterey, Riding the California Trail, Robin Hood of Monterey, and King of the Bandits. Finally, the Positively No Refunds Double Feature #1 presents The Bride and the Beast and The White Gorilla.

Warner Bros. will release The Doris Day Collection: Volume Two on April 10th. It will include six titles: Romance on the High Seas (1948), My Dream Is Yours (1949), On Moonlight Bay (1951), I'll See You in My Dreams (1952), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), and Lucky Me (1954). Vintage shorts and cartoons will accompany each feature. Each disc will also be available separately. April 24th will bring James Cagney: The Signature Collection which will include five films each accompanied by a "Warner Night at the Movies" collection of supplements. The titles are: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941), Torrid Zone (1940), Captains of the Clouds (1942), The Fighting 69th (1940), and The West Point Story (1950). Each will also be available separately. On May 15th, Tex Avery's Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection (cartoons from the 1940s and 1950s) is scheduled.

In HD news, the recent CES convention in Las Vegas was an occasion for studios to reveal their 2007 HD release news. Details were not as exciting as one might have hoped, particularly on the classics side of things. Fox did indicate that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) would appear on Blu-ray in May. MGM will offer Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977), and The Graduate (1967) on Blu-ray in May with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) coming on Blu-ray in June. Warner Bros. has announced a February 27th release for two Steve McQueen films - Bullitt (1968) and The Getaway (1972) - in both HD-DVD and Blu-ray. Each will carry over the supplements from the previous DVD versions with one of Bullitt's extras, The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing, also being presented in high definition.

Well that's it for the first column of the new year. I'll return again soon.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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