|The 2009 Outlook, Classic Reviews Round-Up #51 & New Announcements
For the first Classic Coming Attractions column of 2009, I begin with some thoughts on the year's classic DVD outlook for the major studios. Then I have a batch of classic reviews for you (Flicker Alley's Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer, TCM's Lost & Found RKO Collection, Sony's The Films of Michael Powell, Paramount's Breakfast at Tiffany's: Centennial Collection, Mill Creek's Howdy Doody, Disney's Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh; and VCI's British Cinema Classic ‘B' Film Collection: Volume 1) followed by a review of one current title (Seville's Tell No One, aka Ne le dis à personne). Finally, I run down the latest classic announcements. I hope you'll enjoy it all.
As we enter 2009, the DVD outlook for classic film enthusiasts is decidedly mixed. The world economic downturn has certainly adversely affected most if not all film companies and their home video arms accordingly. The DVD market in general was already drawing back from the heights of a couple of years ago and this will continue this year. Of course the increased use of companies' home video resources to release Blu-ray product is an important factor in all this, but the decreased budgets overall seem likely to be reflected most in the number of new catalogue/classic titles that will get released. This may not show up so much in the early part of the year, as titles put into the pipeline well back in 2008 will mostly still appear, but decisions made over the past quarter and ongoing will likely mean a slimmer menu of classic releases in the latter part of the year. Of course, ultimately the marketplace rules. So if companies see classic titles flying off the shelves, perhaps a dreary near future for classic releases can be averted.
Meanwhile, what are the realities as suggested by the first quarter announcements by the major studios?
Well, we certainly can't complain about Warner Bros. We've come to expect several classic releases from the company every month and that continues so far in 2009. The studio has already announced 16 classic DVD releases comprising 36 titles in all through early April (MGM: When the Lion Roars, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Far from the Madding Crowd, Sidney Poitier Film Collection, Warner Bros. Classic Romance Collection, Waterloo Bridge, The Yellow Rolls Royce, Natalie Wood Collection, The Helen Morgan Story, The Outrage, Rachel Rachel, The Silver Chalice, Get Smart: Season Two, Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 3, Max Fleischer's Superman, TCM Spotlight: Doris Day Collection). That doesn't include the ambitious program of repackagings being done in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies under the umbrella title of TCM Greatest Classics (3 to 5 releases each quarter with 4 classic titles in each release). There are also three Blu-ray releases set for late March (Quo Vadis, An American in Paris, Gigi) with expectations of, at least, anniversary Blu-ray releases of such titles as The Wizard of Oz (70th), Gone with the Wind (70th), North By Northwest (50th), and Ben-Hur (50th) later in the year.
Sony gave some indications in late 2008 of a turn-around in regard to its classic release program which had been lackluster over the past several years after a superior record in the early days of DVD. Releases such as The Films of Budd Boetticher (fruit partially of Sony's new alliance with Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation) and the Martini Movies line (unfortunate umbrella title but good individual film titles under it, such as The Garment Jungle) plus a positive vibe from Sony management (an executive who actually responds with reasonably concrete answers to email questions from individuals) were all cause for optimism. For the first quarter of 2009, Sony's modest classic revival seems intact. We've already had another contribution via The Film Foundation (The Films of Michael Powell - a two-title set) plus announcements of the next wave of Martini Movies (Five, Getting Straight, Gumshoe, Our Man in Havana), the 5th volume of The Three Stooges Collection, and some semi-classic television (7th season of Bewitched, 4th season of The Partridge Family). Blu-ray has obviously been an area of strong emphasis by Sony, but that hasn't translated into many classic titles so far. The much-requested David Lean titles remain elusive, but we do have February announcements of In Cold Blood and two Oscar winners that will be of interest to some classic fans (Gandhi, Kramer Vs. Kramer).
Universal is one of the most frustrating studios for classic enthusiasts. Virtually no advance information of release plans seems to seep out. Months can go by with no classic releases and then, boom, you can get 3 or 4 of them in a month. Unfortunately, they're too often re-releases of the same old titles - frequently the main classic monster ones or some of the Hitchcock holdings. Universal's Paramount pre-1949 holdings are not being mined nearly to the extent that they warrant or that fans desire. The studio introduced a line of classics two years ago and it looked as though we would get regular waves of four titles every three months or so, but that program gradually wilted on the vine. As for this year's outlook, the first quarter of 2009 is bleak indeed, with but one classic release on the docket - March's Woody Woodpecker - Favorites. Then in typical Universal fashion, out of the blue comes an announcement of an early April set of six Pre-Code Paramount films and a 75th anniversary release of the Claudette Colbert Cleopatra (for full details on these, see the New Announcements section below). So the all or nothing pattern seems to be continuing, although the fact that Universal is referring to these latter releases as being in a new Universal Backlot Series suggests that good sales will result in more releases of a similar nature. It will be interesting to see May's announcements for the studio has traditionally been a good source of western releases at that time of year. In terms of Blu-ray releases, the studio has shown no interest whatsoever so far in respect to classic titles, although one has to suspect that the classic monsters and Alfred Hitchcock titles are likely on the studio's mind.
Paramount is another source of discontent for fans. In the earlier days of DVD, the studio had a good record of getting out its classic titles although it only had its post-1948 and silent film catalogue to draw on. For the past several years though, that catalogue has been abandoned with only classic television (mainly in conjunction with CBS Video) deemed worthy of release. An opportunity to do some good with its Republic catalogue holdings was squandered when the studio gave back the distribution rights to Lionsgate. The last quarter of 2008 did deliver some faint glimmers of hope, however. Firstly the studio introduced a new Centennial Collection series of two-disc releases. Although all the first titles were ones previously released on DVD, they were all accorded new transfers and generally substantial upgrades in supplementary material. Secondly, a visit by the Home Theater Forum to Hollywood in the fall was accorded supportive treatment by the studio and the revelation of some positive news about classic titles in the 2009 or early 2010 plans, specifically that The African Queen and Wings were both being worked on for DVD and possibly Blu-ray release. For the first quarter of 2009, Paramount has already given us a January release of two more Centennial Collection titles (Breakfast at Tiffany's, Funny Face) with two more set for March (The Odd Couple, To Catch a Thief) - a pattern that should yield further such releases on a bimonthly basis. Classic television continues to be in the studio's radar with the 3rd season of the Beverly Hillbillies and the final part of the 2nd season of The Fugitive both announced. On the Blu-ray side of things, it seems likely that all the titles in the Centennial Collection will be accorded an early high definition release, with such ones as Breakfast at Tiffany's and Sunset Boulevard at least being mentioned as 2009 candidates. Other likely 2009 Blu-rays are Chinatown and The Ten Commandments.
MGM's financial situation is understood to be somewhat strained at present, so the DVD outlook seems guarded at best for the near future. When the studio arranged to have its product distributed by Fox a couple of years ago, MGM's classic release schedule (mainly drawing from the studio's United Artists and Samuel Goldwyn holdings) was ramped up substantially although in much of 2008, its output mainly consisted of anniversary, special edition, or collections of previously-released titles. Some of the collections infuriated classic fans because they contained one or two previously unreleased, desirable titles unavailable as separate releases. For the first quarter of 2009, MGM has addressed the latter concern with separate releases announced for four Hitchcock films (The Lodger, The Paradine Case, Sabotage, Young and Innocent), three musicals (see New Announcements section below), a Pink Panther and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection, and the SE of the 1963 The Pink Panther. Beyond those though, there is nothing new being offered. It will be instructive with MGM to see the May announcements, for the studio has in the past always offered an ambitious roster of western and war releases at that time. With respect to Blu-ray, MGM's classic offerings will emphasize its James Bond holdings with Goldfinger set for March and other Bond titles later in 2009. Also planned is a late January release of the 1963 The Pink Panther.
Fox has vied with Warner Bros. for the title of best studio for classic releases over the past three years. It released a truly impressive number of rare and desirable classic titles over that period, capped by two impressive box sets - Ford at Fox and most recently Murnau, Borzage and Fox. For the first quarter of 2009, aside from an early January release of The Jackie Robinson Story and a restored version of The Robe in March, the studio has no new classic DVDs planned through the first half of April (a period which in 2008 saw us get 13 classic titles - a Charlie Chan collection, a Bette Davis collection, three film noir titles, and an anniversary edition of An Affair to Remember). The studio's classic film website still lists such titles as Man Hunt, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Stars and Stripes Forever, and The Diary of Anne Frank as being in development, but one wonders if they will come to fruition. If the first quarter of 2009 is indeed an accurate barometer of Fox's future classic plans, the apparent diminishing of such an important classic source is very sad indeed. One can only speculate as to the reason, but one wonders if sales just have not been strong enough to warrant the efforts to date. Another possible explanation for the first quarter state of affairs on the DVD side may, however, be a substantial effort on classic or near-classic titles coming to Blu-ray. Fox announced The Robe, South Pacific, Vanishing Point, The French Connection, The French Connection II, and The Seven Year Itch as all coming to high definition by early April. As with MGM, the May announcements will be interesting as Fox historically has released quite a few war and western titles at that time.
Due to its much smaller catalogue, Disney has always been a smaller player on the classic DVD scene in terms of number of titles. It has had a steady presence, however, and that looks likely to continue in 2009. The first quarter will have releases (mainly re-packagings, but upgrades in some cases) of Mary Poppins, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Escape to Witch Mountain, and Return to Witch Mountain. On the Blu-ray side, Pinocchio is set for a March release with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs planned for October and Destino and Fantasia coming in 2010.
Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer is an impressive five-disc collection of eleven Fairbanks films released on DVD by Flicker Alley. Rather than the action-adventure costume pictures for which he is best known, the Fairbanks films included here provide a revealing glimpse of the contemporary, comedic character that he cultivated almost exclusively during the five years preceding his swashbuckling period.
Fairbanks' time at each of Triangle-Fine Arts and Artcraft is well-represented, as well as the early years at United Artists, the studio which he formed in conjunction with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith in 1919. It's very easy to appreciate the Fairbanks athleticism on display in his films, but how well one enjoys these early films will be much dependent on how one can tolerate the Fairbanks characterizations. He was a tremendous talent; he knew it; and he wasn't shy about showing how well he knew it - a fact that comes across very strongly in almost every effort. Fairbanks' Triangle-Fine Arts releases are all five reels or less in length and four are included in the set. Flirting with Fate (1916) is the most delightful of them. In it, Fairbanks plays a starving artist who is so despondent, he hires a gunman to kill him. But when he inherits a considerable fortune soon thereafter, he has to find various ways to avoid having his own contract carried out. The film sets up the situation methodically, but more than makes up for that with a frenetic final two reels of Fairbanksian acrobatics. Also included are Fairbanks' third film, His Picture in the Papers (1916, the first of a string of successful collaborations with writer Anita Loos and director John Emerson); the bizarre Sherlock Holmes burlesque, The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), which Fairbanks disliked and later wanted withdrawn from distribution; and The Matrimaniac (1916), a familiar comedy in which Fairbanks attempts to wed his girlfriend while the latter's father and a rival suitor try to stop him. The Artcraft period is represented by three films, all of which are fine entertainments. For my money, Wild and Woolly (1917) is the best. Apparently one of Fairbanks' own favorites, the film is a comedy western that turns on satirizing the easterner's views of the west. Fairbanks' enjoyment of the film is clearly evident in his performance and was probably partly due to his love of things western in real life. A Modern Musketeer (1917) is also a winner with Fairbanks playing a modern-day D-Artagnan who eventually finds himself trying to rescue a young woman in the Grand Canyon. The location shooting there and in Canyon de Chelly plus Fairbanks' athletic stunt work make the film an engaging time capsule. Interestingly, the film was long thought to survive only in fragments, but the missing reels were eventually located through the Danish Film Institute. Reaching for the Moon (1917) is the other Artcraft release included. Although I found its premise of a character dreaming that he's the “King of Vulgaria” rather tiresome, the film does exhibit some excellent set design work as well as interesting location shooting in 1917 New York City. Fairbanks' early United Artists period is represented by When the Clouds Roll By (1919), The Mollycoddle (1920), The Nut (1921), and The Mark of Zorro (1920). Leaving aside the latter film which is presented in the set as Fairbanks' transition to the swashbuckling films for which he is best known (and also a title long available on DVD), the other three all have strong merit. When the Clouds Roll By has Fairbanks playing an average joe who's taken in by the machinations of a questionable doctor. The film provides much scope for lampooning the country's then-prevalent interest in the study of the mind. While much of it seems rather familiar now, one can appreciate its freshness for a film of 1919. There is an appreciable quotient of Fairbanks' athleticism on view and one such sequence reminds one of the Fred Astaire dance on the ceiling in 1951's Royal Wedding. The Mollycoddle is an equally entertaining tale, this time about a spoiled young man who eventually transforms into a strong self-reliant character. The film utilizes some good location work in Arizona and concludes with a blaze of stunt work in the climactic chase and fight sequence between Fairbanks and Wallace Beery. The Nut finds Fairbanks playing an eccentric romantic living in Greenwich Village who falls for a free-thinking woman but has competition for winning her affection. The film is full of ingenious sequences and sight gags that make for a quick and enjoyable passage of time, but it's a title that has been somewhat overlooked due to its having been released between the two very successive swashbucklers, The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers. The DVD renditions of all the films were produced from early-generation film materials by David Shepard of Film Preservation Associates and are very nicely done. There are the inevitable scratches and speckles and even some minor evidence of decomposition, but overall, the images are clear and nicely detailed with effective tinting in many cases. Only very occasionally are contrast issues apparent. I must report, however, that disc three of my set (containing A Modern Musketeer and Reaching for the Moon could not be read by my DVD player and was only accessible to me via my computer's DVD player. (I don't know if this is an isolated problem or more widely prevalent, however.) The stereo music scores for each film were provided by the likes of Eric Behelm, Philip Carli, Frederick Hodges, Robert Israel, Franklin Stover, and Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. I can't say there was a single one that I didn't enjoy and feel was quite appropriate to the content. As if the eleven films weren't enough, supplementary material includes audio commentary on A Modern Musketeer, galleries of stills from Douglas Fairbanks' personal collection at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and a 32-page booklet of background information written by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta, authors of the 2008 biography “Douglas Fairbanks”. Highly recommended.
Nearly three years ago, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) was able to acquire the rights to six RKO releases of the 1930s which, aside from a brief period of exposure on New York City television in the mid-1950s, had been out of circulation since their original theatrical release. It's unclear why the films were allowed to languish for so long, although it is known that the rights to all were controlled by former RKO executive Merian C. Cooper for much of that time. In any event, they are available to us now and many classic enthusiasts will have seen them on TCM during the past couple of years. All six have now been released by TCM on DVD in The Lost & Found RKO Collection, although collectors should note that despite a highly professional-looking package the discs themselves have been burned rather than pressed. The six titles are Double Harness (1933), Stingaree (1934), Rafter Romance (1933) and its remake Living on Love (1937), and One Man's Journey (1933), and its remake A Man to Remember (1938). Each title is a briskly-made delight with A Man to Remember being the highlight of the set. It features a superb title performance by Edward Ellis as a selfless doctor who sacrifices his own career aspirations for his patients. The film, directed by Garson Kanin, is packed with finely constructed sequences (note the opening one particularly) and features several effective supporting performances. The source material is the only print known to survive, in English but with permanent Dutch sub-titles. The film of which it's a remake, One Man's Journey, is entertaining enough in its own right, but Lionel Barrymore's performance as the doctor pales in comparison with Ellis's. Rafter Romance has the benefit of Ginger Rogers as one of a pair of tenants who share an apartment but don't actually know each other, since she occupies it in the evening while Norman Foster has it in the daytime. The two eventually meet away from the apartment and find romance, but still unaware that they're actually roommates, continually complain to each other about their roommate's perceived foibles and shortcomings. The two stars make this contrivance work and the pre-Code shooting allows a more-relaxed atmosphere than that created in the remake, Living on Love. The latter's lead duo of James Dunn and Whitney Bourne is not nearly as appealing as the Rogers/Foster combination although Franklin Pangborn makes a welcome supporting appearance. Double Harness is a fine pre-Code effort with Anne Harding tricking William Powell into marrying her by placing herself in a compromising position with him, a situation which she has pre-arranged for her father to discover. Harding always brings a realistic feel to her characters, often underplaying them to good effect. Powell delivers one of his standard playboy characterizations, but does so with conviction. Set in Australia, Stingaree stars Irene Dunne as an aspiring opera singer who falls for a music-loving bandit called Stingaree (Richard Dix) who disguises himself as a composer in order to help her. The story is rather predictable, but holds up well at only 76 minutes in length. Dunne sings several songs quite nicely, but the film is stolen by Mary Boland (as an elderly woman who sees herself as a singer) every time she's on screen. Each film is presented on its own disc in a separate Amaray case. All look very nice indeed, quite crisp with good image detail and fine contrast. There are some speckles and scratches, and modest grain is readily apparent. I can't imagine anyone being unhappy with what they see here. The mono sound on all is in good shape and each disc sports a number of short supplements, including comments by Rudy Behlmer, information from the TCM database, and reproductions of various publicity materials. TCM archival interviews with directors William Wellman and Garson Kanin appear on the Stingaree and A Man to Remember discs respectively. Recommended.
The Films of Michael Powell, a two-disc release by Sony, has finally provided the long-desired Region 1 DVD release of Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946). The set also includes Age of Consent (1969), Powell's last directorial feature film effort. Those who may not have somehow seen A Matter of Life and Death are indeed in for a treat. The film is an irresistible blend of fantasy and reality that relates the fate of a young RAF pilot (David Niven) who bails out of a flaming plane without a parachute. He miraculously awakes to find himself alive on a fog-shrouded beach but with a recurring severe headache. Or is he alive? The next hours find him on one hand meeting up with the American WAAF officer (Kim Hunter) with whom he had spoken over the radio just prior to bailing out and finding himself falling in love. On the other, there are instances where time appears to stand still and during them he encounters a raffish heavenly representative known as Conductor 17 (Marius Goring) who explains that Niven should be dead but was accidentally overlooked by him during his pick-up circuit. Niven pleads for a reprieve citing his new-found love as a circumstance that should over-ride his death sentence. The next days present a compelling parallel between a world in which Niven is treated by a local doctor (Roger Livesey) and another (a hallucinatory one?) in which he must plead his case before a heavenly tribunal. Elements of the film are reminiscent of such contemporaneous films as Here Comes Mr. Jordan and A Guy Named Joe, but there is an elegance to A Matter of Life and Death that is unmatched by any other similarly-themed movie before or since. The British sensibility and the naturalness of the Powell/Pressburger collaborations of the time (such as I Know Where I'm Going and A Canterbury Tale) are equally in evidence here, to the extent that one can almost not mistake the film for anything other than a Powell/Pressburger effort. With the aid of cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the film is a beautifully stylized production with Technicolor effectively utilized for the earthy sequences and a softened black and white characterizing the heavenly ones. Both Niven and Hunter are extremely appealing in the lead roles (a rather obvious suggestion of postwar union between Britain and U.S. interests), but it is the work of Livesey and Goring, as well as that of Abraham Sofaer as the heavenly judge, that really stick in the mind. Those looking for familiar faces will also be pleased to find Richard Attenborough, Raymond Massey, and Robert Coote in the cast. The DVD presentation is splendid. The film looks nicely detailed with the Technicolor sequences appearing sumptuous indeed with very little evidence of any mis-registration. The black and white sequences are an effective contrast with an ethereal look that predominates. There is some excessive softness to the latter sequences, but it's unclear if that was intentional on the filmmakers' part or more likely an artifact of the DVD transfer process. The mono sound is clear and free of hiss or distortion. Supplements include an introduction by Martin Scorsese (whose Film Foundation is partly responsible for this DVD release) and a very in-depth and interesting audio commentary by British film historian Ian Christie. The other film in the set, The Age of Consent, is a less rewarding film but not without appeal. For any film with James Mason is worth seeing (in this case he also co-produced), but the story of a jaded painter who goes to Australia to revitalize his creative juices (loosely based on the life of artist Norman Lindsay) seems rather familiar and at times predictable. It does feature some wonderfully composed scenes of Dunk Island and the Queensland coast as well as the Great Barrier Reef area, with colour being used strikingly by Michael Powell virtually throughout. It's also a pleasure to see, and I do mean see, Helen Mirren in her feature film debut as the Mason character's muse. The film is given a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that looks very good though not quite as crisp as A Matter of Life and Death. The colour is sumptuous with very good fidelity. Film grain is evident and there are some speckles apparent at times, but overall the disc conveys a nice film-like feel. The mono sound is in good shape. Supplements include an audio commentary by film historian Kent Jones, an introduction by Martin Scorsese, and three featurettes that provide collectively a good portrait of the film's production. The interview featurette with Helen Mirren is particularly of interest. This Michael Powell release from Sony is highly recommended.