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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Welcome to the first Classic Coming Attractions column of 2010. As I did last year, I'm providing my take on the classic outlook for the coming year including thoughts on each of the major studios and smaller specialist releasing companies. I also have eight reviews for you - three classic releases (Cattle Town and Deep Valley from the Warner Archive, Miss Mend from Flicker Alley); four recent British drama titles that I believe classic fans would find of interest (Life on Mars: Series 2 and Murphy's Law: Series 1 from Acorn Media, The Complete Inspector Lewis from PBS, and Into the Storm from HBO); and even a book review ("Screen World: Volume 60"). As usual, the column concludes with the latest announcements of forthcoming classic releases. I've not had time to address many non-Region 1 announcements this time, but will look to catch up on them in my next column.

The Classic Outlook for 2010

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… If you're a classic enthusiast, it will depend on your viewpoint on Manufactured-On-Demand (MOD) discs whether you feel we're in the former or the latter.

It's pretty clear now that MOD is the way of the future when it comes to most classic titles not yet released on DVD. Despite all its problems the Warner Archive seems to be a success and MGM followed suit late last year with Universal jumping on the bandwagon this month. Can Fox, Paramount, and Sony be far behind? Pressed discs of classic films are not going to disappear, but the number of new titles is likely to continue to decline, at least where most of the major studios are concerned. The pluses and minuses of the MOD model have been debated ad nauseum. The main positive, and it is a major one, is the increasing availability of literally hundreds of titles that may not have been otherwise available for a long time or perhaps never. Excessive cost, quality of transfers, and questionable durability are the main negatives. The answer to the former two issues lies within the individual consumer/collector; if one is prepared to pay excessive prices and accept mediocre transfers in some cases, that's what one will continue to get. It's simple supply and demand. As for disc durability, only time can answer questions about that.

Blu-ray will of course be a significant factor in future catalogue releases, but so far the list of pre-1970 titles released can be described as modest. Approaching four years of the format, there are fewer classic titles available than there were on DVD after a comparable period from its start. It seems unlikely that we will ever have the number of titles on Blu-ray that made it to DVD, never mind laserdisc and VHS. This is simply a reflection of the increasingly abbreviated life span of new media and the increased number of post 1970 titles that exist and tend to get precedence over older titles. Another factor is the need for restoration. Just as restoration was generally needed for classic titles to look their best on DVD vs. older formats, Blu-ray ups the ante similarly. Some studios have demonstrated the willingness to make that investment; others as yet have not.

Warner Bros. has been the darling of classic enthusiasts for many years, and for many fans they continue to be so. The monthly releases of pressed DVD classic box sets have dried up, but have been replaced by several dozen regular monthly Archive releases. Pressed releases have been much scaled back. For 2010, we know that an Errol Flynn set is planned as is another Film Noir collection. Several individual titles have also been promised including No Time for Sergeants (now announced) and The Breaking Point. The studio continues to have items such as the Bowery Boys, The Magnificent Ambersons, Raintree County, and others in its sights for pressed releases, but whether any will appear this year has not been revealed. It seems likely that major titles such as the latter two will also get a simultaneous Blu-ray treatment when they do surface. In respect to Blu-ray, Warners continues to demonstrate the greatest commitment of any of the major studios to getting classic titles out. So far in 2010, we've had The Music Man and Doctor Zhivago announced, with other titles such as A Star Is Born, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Dial M for Murder, The Exorcist, Kelly's Heroes, Where Eagles Dare, The Maltese Falcon, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre coming later in the year if news from overseas is to be believed. The Astaire/Rogers musicals were at one time strongly tipped for this coming autumn, but I've heard nothing further of late. Blu-rays of Citizen Kane, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and A Streetcar Named Desire are apparently in the offing for 2011.

This time last year we were debating the rumours of the demise of Fox's previously impressive classic release program. Unfortunately, that demise was all too real and the studio released its fewest number of classic titles in any year since virtually the beginning of the DVD era. The appearance of a few classic titles such as The Robe, South Pacific, and The Diary of Anne Frank on Blu-ray while welcome was little solace to classic enthusiasts looking for new classic titles to surface. There's nothing to suggest that this year will be any different. It may even be worse. With announcements of new releases already appearing through early May, Fox has announced exactly zero classic titles on either DVD or Blu-ray. Titles that were anticipated on Blu-ray last year such as Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines, The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Seven Year Itch, and The Sound of Music may be in the mix for subsequent months, but really, who knows, as Fox plays it about as close to the vest with its plans as any of the studios. In Fox's case, the situation for classic titles on DVD has deteriorated to the point where the announcement of a MOD program would almost be welcomed.

Over the course of 2009, the perception of Sony as a releaser of classic titles on DVD underwent the most positive change of any of the major studios. The signs were there in late 2008 with the appearance of The Budd Boetticher Collection, and that was followed with a number of impressive collections from the studio throughout 2009. That momentum has been maintained in the early part of the new year, with the announcements of The Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volumes 1 and 2 and the Icons of Suspense Collection Presents Hammer Films. Also understood to be in the plans for 2010 are, among others, Columbia Film Noir: Volume 2, the Rita Hayworth Collection, and The Three Stooges Collection: Volume 8. Best of all, these are pressed DVD releases and the commitment to such releases at this time appears to preclude a MOD program in Sony's near-term future anyway. The studio's commitment to classic titles on Blu-ray has been modest so far, although anything they have put out has been well done. So far in 2010, nothing of a classic nature has been announced, but hope springs eternal regarding Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone, and The Bridge on the River Kwai - all titles that have been mentioned as in the works since the beginning of the Blu-ray era.

Paramount made its Fox-like move of axing its program of classic films on DVD several years ago, so it was no surprise that little appeared from the studio in terms of classic feature films last year. Classic fans had to be content with the studio's (admittedly good) program of classic TV releases in conjunction with CBS Video. Even in terms of classics on Blu-ray, Paramount underperformed, preferring instead to reissue once again its familiar best-selling classic titles (Sunset Boulevard, Roman Holiday, etc.) on DVD in a new Centennial Collection. The only classic Blu-ray we got was It's a Wonderful Life. In 2010, the Centennial Collection seems to have been jettisoned, so maybe the studio is finally ready to give us that collection's titles on Blu-ray. At least, we do finally have a DVD and Blu-ray release of The African Queen announced in 2010 so maybe that offers hope for other classic Blu-rays. Breakfast at Tiffany's, Sunset Boulevard, and The Ten Commandments have all been mentioned as being near the top of Paramount's list. When Paramount stated two years that The African Queen was coming, it also said that it was working on Wings for DVD and possible Blu-ray, so that may be a realistic possibility for 2010 too. In terms of classic TV, Paramount appears to be continuing its emphasis on such releases again this year. We've even had the much-requested fourth season of Have Gun - Will Travel (at least, the first half of it) finally announced.

With Universal, it's always been hard to know what to expect. New series of classic releases get announced and then are abandoned after a few waves are issued. The latest example was the Universal Backlot Series that appears to have ended in 2009 in favour of a joint initiative with Turner Classic Movies. That initiative began last autumn and will continue in 2010 with two collections so far known - Cary Grant: The Early Years and the TCM Universal Deanna Durbin Collection. Others are presumably planned at roughly 2-3 month intervals. The TCM/Universal effort was announced as a MOD program, but so far the releases have been pressed discs. Now Universal has actually announced its own studio MOD program, with releases available through Amazon.com. The model is similar to the Warner Archive in terms of pricing and content. The program's commitment to correct aspect ratios and anamorphic encoding where appropriate has not yet been verified, however. The studio has apparently not abandoned the pressed DVD market entirely though, as it recently announced a release of 1933's Alice in Wonderland. With respect to Blu-ray, I don't remember there having been any classic titles so far released. Universal has always been quick to milk its classic monster and Hitchcock holdings, so it's actually surprising that none of these have yet appeared. Instead, the studio apparently prefers to give us Legacy Collection packagings on DVD, with The Wolf Man coming out in February.

Disney has the smallest catalog of the major studios, but it seems to know how to handle it well. We've always had a steady diet of the studio's classic titles on DVD with upgrades as appropriate. The same steady hand seems to be dealing with the catalog when it comes to Blu-ray too. We got some very fine efforts last year including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and 2010 offers further fare. Planned are Fantasia with Dumbo and Destino also possibilities.

MGM's future is uncertain at present, which makes any DVD and Blu-ray plans for 2010 tenuous at best. Last year we saw a handful of classic titles appear on DVD (MGM was the only studio to give us the traditional batch of westerns in mid-spring) and the odd Blu-ray (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Goldfinger spring to mind). At the end of 2009, MGM initiated a MOD program via Amazon.com that had a few classic titles included, although I've yet to see a press release that might shed some light on the studio's intentions regarding the scope of the program, frequency of new titles, policy of correct aspect ratios/anamorphic transfers, etc. If MGM continues to limp along, we will presumably see additions to the MOD catalog during the year and again the odd Blu-ray may surface. Speculative candidates for Blu-ray are A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Magnificent Seven, and more Bond. Of course, if MGM is sold, all bets are off, at least temporarily.

Lionsgate was in the classic game in 2009 only because Paramount had previously leased the rights to the Republic catalog to them. That said, the company shows little evidence that it knows what it has or how to exploit it. A few haphazard titles surface from the Republic holdings, but frequently they're put out with almost distain; little effort is made to provide topnotch transfers or thoughtful supplements. In previous years, you could almost count on a few John Wayne titles appearing, but last year not even that happened. God forbid that Lionsgate should ever consider the many other B westerns and serials that Republic produced never mind the occasional special such as Johnny Guitar or The Last Command. Don't expect anything to change in this regard in 2010, although I suppose some of the Republic holdings that Lionsgate has milked several times on DVD, such as High Noon, Rio Grande, and The Quiet Man, might be Blu-ray candidates though that's strictly speculation on my part. The only concrete cause for any optimism among classic fans is Lionsgate's recent agreement with Studio Canal that seems likely to yield a number of that company's classic holdings on Blu-ray. The Ladykillers and Contempt have already been announced and more are quite likely this year.

Criterion has always been a reliable source of classic product, with a blend of American, British, and other overseas titles appearing month after month on DVD and increasingly Blu-ray. Impeccable transfers and meaty supplements have been characteristic of the company's releases and there's no expectation that that will change in 2010. The company has current arrangements with Universal, Fox, Paramount, and MGM that allow access to a few selected titles from their catalogues. Already in 2010, we've seen announcements of DVDs of such titles as The Fugitive Kind, Make Way for Tomorrow, and Bigger Than Life (also in Blu-ray) that are fruit of those arrangements. Criterion has also been quick to obtain the release rights to films when they've expired with other companies. The expected release in 2010 of Stagecoach (which WB previously handled) is an example. The company also offers its Essential Art House and Eclipse Series releases, which are also expected to continue and indeed have already borne fruit this year.

Milestone will continue its efforts to bring important forgotten films to the home market on DVD in 2010, just as it did last year with its very fine edition of The Exiles. The highlight this year (likely in the summer) will be Araya, a 1959 documentary by Margot Benacerraf depicting a day in the life of three families living on the arid Arayan Peninsula of Venezuela. It also seems likely that the long-planned Mary Pickford silents (Sparrows, The Hoodlum, Poor Little Rich Girl) will appear late in the year. There are no Blu-ray plans at present, but that could change on short notice as Milestone routinely prepares high definition masters.

VCI has become a reliable source of classic serials, B westerns, British film, and assorted other genre titles over the past half dozen years. The company has access to the extensive Kit Parker Films collection. Its transfers have not always been the best, but VCI has been making positive strides in this regard of late. We even got a nice Blu-ray version of A Christmas Carol last fall. There is no expectation that the past mix or volume of releases will change in 2010. As in the past, announcements so far through March continue to promise three or four new releases monthly, spread over various genres including westerns, action, and film noir.

Kino usually delivers up to half a dozen or so classic releases on DVD each year, with an emphasis on silent titles. Last year also brought the first silent film on Blu-ray in Region A - The General. Kino has now merged with Lorber to form a new company, but releases will continue under the Kino imprint and the same scope of program is expected in 2010. Two-title collections for each of the Talmadge sisters have already been announced and anticipated are Blu-ray releases of Battleship Potemkin (already set for mid-April), Metropolis, and two Buster Keaton films are planned too (Our Hospitality/Sherlock Jr.).

We've been able to count on Flicker Alley for a handful of fine silent releases for each of the past few years and 2010 should be no exception. In fact, it looks as though the company will have more releases than in 2009. Melies Encore has already been announced and Rene Clair's Italian Straw Hat is definitely in the plans. There's also a box set coming and two or three other individual titles as well. One of those will be a silent that has not been previously released on home video and that the company is planning on mastering for Blu-ray in order to gauge the interest and viability of doing more in the future.


Classic DVD Reviews

Flicker Alley's most recent release in conjunction with Film Preservation Associates and Turner Classic Movies is Miss Mend, a 1926 Russian adventure serial in three feature-length episodes.

Miss Mend

The production was intended to compete with American films of the time that were very popular in Russia, and it obviously owes much to contemporary American serials starring Pearl White and Ruth Roland. Sporting a huge cast of characters and a somewhat complicated plot, Miss Mend is a whirlwind of action, with a blend of fights, stunts, and frenetic foot and vehicle chases that manages to be sustained virtually throughout the entire four-plus hour running time. Some well-timed touches of humour temper the mayhem effectively. The story revolves around a criminal conspiracy known as "The Organization" headed by the mysterious figure "Chiche" (Sergei Komarov) who is trying sell plague-inducing bacteria to a group of industrialists and later attempts to release the bacteria upon the world. The Miss Mend of the title is a newspaper typist (Natalia Glan) who along with her colleagues attempts to foil Cliché's actions. Each of the three episodes does to a degree stand on its own as each focuses on a very self-contained aspect of the whole story, with a cliffhanger of sorts at the end of both episodes one and two linking them to the subsequent ones. The production is co-directed by Fedor Ozep and Boris Barnet, both Russian directors with an interest in the American action-film style of focusing on movement, contemporary events, and retaining intensity and suspense. Miss Mend does exhibit some obvious use of the expressionistic style popular in Europe at the time, and in that sense the production also reminds one of some of Fritz Lang's epics of the 1920s. Flicker Alley's DVD presentation is on two discs. Mastered from a 35mm print derived from the camera negative, the results are very satisfying. Image detail is most impressive and the image is very clean as well. There are some speckles and scratches, but they're never distracting. Some passages are tinted. The stereo audio delivers a new orchestral score by Robert Israel that complements the material quite well without being intrusive. Supplements include a 20-minute documentary on the production's background, a shorter featurette on the Israel recording sessions, and an informative 16-page booklet by historians Ana Olenina and Maxim Pozdorovkin. Recommended.

Deep Valley (1947) was Ida Lupino's last film at Warner Bros. where she had worked (though not exclusively) since 1940. The end came when star and studio could not negotiate a mutually satisfactory contract - Warners wanted an exclusive arrangement whereas Lupino preferred the continued flexibility of working at several studios as opportunities arose.

Deep Valley

In any event, Deep Valley was a pretty decent film to go out on. Its script, which had been around for half a dozen years having been originally intended for Bogart, Garfield and Sheridan, finds Lupino playing a shy country girl with a speech impediment living in a remote valley with two embittered parents. Work on a nearby highway brings a group of convicts to the area. One of them (Dane Clark) escapes and is befriended by Lupino, with a romance developing that helps overcome her stammer. A posse soon tracks the convict down forcing him on the run to avoid capture. Lupino's work is particularly good in the film. Her sympathetic portrayal is very affecting without descending into pathos, and one is continually drawn to her whenever she's on screen. Dane Clark (the poor man's Garfield on the Warner lot) tries hard, but he doesn't possess the screen presence to compete effectively. One remembers much more the performance of Fay Bainter as Lupino's reclusive mother and even Henry Hull as her father. The film capitalizes on location work at Hermosa Beach and Big Bear Lake, California, benefiting from some fine work from cinematographer Ted McCord. Overall the film's a rather low-key and brooding melodrama that has been somewhat forgotten over the years, but it's a handsome and beguiling experience well worth the investment of your time. The Warner Archive full frame transfer works best on smaller screens where occasional softness and some edge effects are muted. Image detail is quite good and black levels acceptable. The mono sound is in good shape with but minor evidence of hiss. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

Warner Bros. had made a series of singing cowboy westerns in the 1930s starring Dick Foran, the films appearing via the studio's B unit, then under the control of Bryan Foy. Noel Smith was the director of some of them. By the 1950s, Warners' B unit had been long disbanded and singing cowboys were out of fashion, so it was curious to see Foy and Smith reunite on the Warner lot to produce Cattle Town, a pretty much by-the-numbers 1952 western starring Dennis Morgan as a singing cowboy.

Cattle Town

The tale finds Morgan playing a man sent by the governor of Texas at the end of the Civil War to deal with difficulties in the town of Questa between a land baron (Ray Teal) and cattlemen (Philip Carey among them) that he's trying to evict from his land. Morgan had previously played in several westerns and he's quite comfortable in his role. His typically genial approach works well. His pleasing tenor voice handles the songs nicely too, but they seem out of place in the 1950s when the western genre was making great strides in delivering a more sophisticated level of entertainment. Amanda Blake (of Gunsmoke fame) and Rita Moreno do fine work providing Morgan's romantic entanglements, but Phil Carey is almost wasted. Look for supporting turns by Paul Picerni (later in The Untouchables) and Merv Griffin. The film tries to convey the image of a large scale western with the inclusion of a massive bar-room brawl and a huge cattle stampede, but it only succeeds in invoking comparisons, much to its detriment, to past Warner western glories such as Dodge City. The Warner Archive full frame transfer looks quite presentable with decent sharpness and good image detail. Black levels are fine. The mono sound is also in good shape. There are no supplements. A rental for western fans.

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