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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #16 - March 2005

As I looked back over these reviews after writing them, I realized that there are an awful lot of recommendations here. But they're all justified. That's the sort of year it's been so far for fans of classic film on DVD - a case of money in, money out. As usual, the reviews are ordered by year of original theatrical release. There are 14 in all, ranging in original release date from 1922 to 1961. I hope you enjoy them.


Grandma's Boy (1922)
(released on DVD by Reelclassicdvd in March, 2004)

In the early 1920s, the great sight-gag comedians began to make the transition from two-reelers to feature films. Keaton made The Saphead in 1920 and Chaplin made The Kid in 1921. In 1922, Harold Lloyd delivered his first two features - Grandma's Boy and Dr. Jack. Grandma's Boy is about a young man who is a coward when it comes to just about everything in his life. He can't evict a vagrant from his grandma's yard and he can't stand up for himself when another man tries to steal his girl. Taking pity on him, his grandma tells him about his grandfather - how he had been a coward during the Civil War until he was given a small charm that gave him the courage he lacked. She now passes the charm on to Harold and the transformation is amazing.

The Langdon Collection

Lloyd reportedly claimed that Grandma's Boy was his favourite of all his films and that, with the nature of its story, it could just as easily have been a drama as a comedy. The film actually started as a two-reeler, but grew into five reels (about 50 minutes) as Lloyd warmed to the material. The final version of the film has a great deal of heart and a number of effective sight gags, but that was not true of the preview version. It lacked many of the gags and producer Hal Roach was not happy. Lloyd agreed that more laughs were needed so further gag material was shot and interspersed in the film. A cartoon character intended to represent the good and bad spirit of Harold's character was also introduced. Another preview affirmed the success of the added gags, but not the cartoon character so the latter was dropped, leaving the version that was then released commercially and is available to us now. For those unfamiliar with Lloyd's work and his spectacle-wearing characterization of the typical young American male of the time, if somewhat of an eager-beaver type, Grandma's Boy is a fine introduction.

The title is now in the public domain although it has not been made widely available on DVD by the various PD specialists. The release by Reelclassicdvd (available through reelclassicdvd.com) is a decent presentation, pending a possibly superior release by New Line later this year (as a result of an agreement with the Lloyd Trust to release all the Lloyd films on DVD). The disc is quite watchable although the image is rather washed out in many sequences and light intensity fluctuates noticeably. Source material decomposition is occasionally evident. The title cards are all readable and the film is accompanied by a pleasing new score written and performed by Ben Model. As a supplement, the disc includes the 1921 two-reel comedy Lloyd comedy, I Do. It originally was made as a three-reeler, but a preview was not a success and its first reel was scrapped. The truncated version became one of Lloyd's more successful shorts. Its presentation on the disc, with a mainly sepia (almost yellow at times) tint, is quite workable. Ben Model again provides the piano accompaniment.


The Langdon Collection (1924-1926)
(released on DVD by Reelclassicdvd in March, 2005)

While several of Harry Langdon's feature-length efforts have been available on DVD for some time, his shorts are a different matter. Five of them from the period 1924 to 1926 have been gathered together for The Langdon Collection by Reelclassicdvd. Included are: Feet of Mud (1924), Lucky Stars (1925), Saturday Afternoon (1926), Fiddlesticks (1926), and Soldier Man (1926). All were made at the Mack Sennett Studios prior to Langdon's move into independent production released through First National. To my knowledge, only Saturday Afternoon has previously appeared on DVD (in Kino's Slapstick Encyclopedia).

Feet of Mud - Harry is the surprise star of the football game, but then has to make good as a city street cleaner in order to win his girl's hand.

Lucky Stars - Harry gets involved with a medicine show quack, but his troubles multiply when they settle in a Spanish town to do business.

Saturday Afternoon - Harry is married, but still goes out on a double date with a friend. Of course, his wife eventually gets wind of it and the dates' former boyfriends show up too.

Fiddlesticks - Harry tries to become a musician in order to make a living, but he can't play a lick. But playing badly can pay dividends too.

Soldier Man - Harry is a soldier who doesn't know the war is over and eventually gets tangled up in a "Prisoner of Zenda" type situation.

The Langdon Collection

Next to Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, Langdon is usually thought of as "the forgotten clown". He had a quick rise to stardom in the mid-1920s and just as rapid a fall thereafter, although he would linger on in pictures until the mid-1940s. One's liking for Langdon's comedy is very much a matter of personal taste. His stock character was a child-like innocent who relied more on personality and subtlety of expression than broad gags for his comedy, and he found his greatest success beginning in late 1924 with a creative team that included director Harry Edwards, writer Arthur Ripley, and a young gag-man by the name of Frank Capra. Langdon made more than 20 shorts while with Sennett, 12 or so of them with Edwards, Ripley, and Capra. The five gathered together in Reelclassicdvd's collection are among the best. Of those five, Feet of Mud (pre-Capra), Saturday Afternoon, and Fiddlesticks are the most consistently entertaining.

The DVD presentation is very pleasing indeed given the age of the material. All five of the shorts look bright, fairly sharp, and nicely detailed. Inevitably there are some sections that look soft and there are numerous speckles and scratches, but they never detract from one's enjoyment of the films. The shorts appear to be complete, with opening credits intact and title cards in good shape. Wurlitzer Theater organ music composed and played by Bernie Anderson accompanies each short and is a definite plus. The disc offers a play-all or play-individually option. Recommended.


Piccadilly (1929)
(released on DVD by Milestone on March 1st, 2005)

Anna May Wong was born in Los Angeles in 1905 and eventually gravitated to film acting as a consequence of frequently seeing films shot in her neighborhood and through the influence of her cousin, James Wong Howe, then acting in films but eventually to become one of the foremost cinematographers of his time. First on screen about 1919 or 1920, she gradually improved her billing until by the mid-1920s, she had a reasonable fan following. Never completely satisfied with her Hollywood roles, however, she sought better opportunities in Europe during the transitional period from the silent to sound era. She returned to Hollywood and a contract with Paramount in the early 1930s (1932's Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich was a highpoint), but her roles diminished thereafter. It was during her European period that she appeared in one of her best films, Piccadilly, made in England by director E.A. Dupont and released in 1929. It was one of the last silent films to come out.

Piccadilly

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In Piccadilly, Anna May Wong plays Shosho who is a worker in the kitchen of the Piccadilly Club. The club's manager, Valentine Wilmot discovers her dancing in the kitchen, which is fortuitous. He needs a new dancer since the male member of his current headline dance act has quit to go to America. Hiring her as the club's new dance sensation, he becomes entranced by her. This alienates the remaining member of the old dance act who happens to have been Wilmot's lover, not to mention Shosho's own lover, Jim - a situation that leads to murder.

The film is a tour-de-force for Anna May Wong who manages to convey a wealth of emotion with a mere glance or tilt of the head. She demonstrates a magnetism that was seldom manifest, or at least not nearly to the same extent, in any of her other films. None of the other actors are able to stack up to her in Piccadilly, although Charles Laughton does score in a small sequence that was his first film appearance. Ray Milland is apparently an extra in one of the nightclub scenes. The film is a visual pleasure with its elaborate nightclub set and the expressionistic aura that Dupont's use of shadow and interesting camera work impart. That comes in handy as a way to compensate for the story's slowness at times.

Piccadilly was restored by the British Film Institute in 2003 to a 109-minute length using a variety of source materials as the original negative was badly decayed in many places. Milestone's full frame DVD (distributed by Image) is a pleasure to behold. The image is very clear and generally quite sharp. There is little evidence of source material deterioration and the image is nicely tinted. The transfer has potential for the PAL/NTSC ghosting that can occur in such instances, but I found no problems of significance in my viewing. The musical accompaniment by Neil Brand is a sort of jazz/swing score that is quite appealing even if it could be argued that it doesn't sound quite as contemporary with the 1929 release date as it could be. The supplements include the prologue that was used for a sound version of the film that was made available soon after the original silent release; a 20-minute discussion of the score by its composer; 22 minutes of excerpts from a film festival panel discussion on Anna May Wong that are quite interesting (at least the portions that one can hear - the sound is very poor); a stills gallery; and DVD-ROM material that includes press information and five essays on Anna May Wong. Recommended.


Arrowsmith (1931)
(released on DVD by MGM on March 8th, 2005)

Sinclair Lewis's novel "Arrowsmith" was written in 1925 and became a huge popular and critical success, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for that year. It told the story of Martin Arrowsmith, a young doctor interested in research who begins his career as a country practitioner after marrying a young nurse named Leora Tozer. Despite the pleasures of a rural practice, Arrowsmith never loses his interest in research and after developing a cure for Black Leg disease in cattle, he is eventually lured to New York by the prospect of doing important medical research at the prestigious McGurk Institute. There research progress is slow, but eventually he develops a promising serum. When news of a plague outbreak on an island in the West Indies arrives, Arrowsmith travels there to test his serum, with Leora accompanying him. Unfortunately the plague situation is even worse than he expected and Arrowsmith's whole life is irrevocably changed by the events that follow.

Arrowsmith

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Arrowsmith was a production of Samuel Goldwyn's independent company and came about because of Ronald Colman's interest in the novel. Colman was under contract to Goldwyn at the time and managed to convince Goldwyn to purchase the book's film rights despite the latter's misgivings. John Ford was borrowed from Fox to direct. The resulting film was a good try, but it lacks real conviction. Colman's performance is inconsistent. As much as I like Ronald Colman as an actor, here he fails to invest scenes in which intensity is required with any real depth of passion. His efforts seem too frequently to be shallow and unconvincing. Several drunken scenes are good examples, but far from the only ones. The efforts of the rest of the cast are hit and miss. Helen Hayes is quite good as Leora, but Richard Bennett is way over the top as the crusading Dr. Sibelius who provides Arrowsmith with inspiration. Clarence Brooks as a West Indian doctor gives a quietly classy performance while Myrna Loy is just quiet - her portrayal of a young woman living on the island and drawn to Arrowsmith is so understated as to be almost non-existent. The film does look striking with some great deco sets in New York contrasted with the misty unhealthness of the West Indies island. Only some of the latter scenes and the brief appearance of the likes of Ward Bond and John Qualen give any hint that Arrowsmith is a John Ford film.

MGM has released the film on DVD in a full frame transfer that is consistent with the original aspect ratio. The results are somewhat inconsistent as the image varies from being sharp and bright to occasionally pale and fuzzy. Modest grain is in evidence and sometimes the DVD encoding accentuates it excessively. When the image is good (which admittedly is most of the time), the blacks are quite deep and image detail is fine. The mono sound provides clear dialogue although low-level background hiss is present. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. There are no supplements. Despite the film's shortcomings, its ambition along with its acting and directorial pedigree make a rental not unreasonable.


Dead End (1937)
(released on DVD by MGM on March 8th, 2005)

It's always nice to get more Bogart on DVD and here we have one of his few non-Warners appearances during the late 1930s. The film is Dead End, based on the play of the same title by Sidney Kingsley which ran on Broadway for well over a year. Although Fox and RKO were interested in filming the play, it was Samuel Goldwyn who purchased the screen rights for his independent production company. Some of the Broadway cast recreated their roles on the screen including Marjorie Main and several of the group of juveniles that would soon come to be billed as the Dead End kids (Billy Halop, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, and Bernard Punsley). Leo Gorsey also appeared, though in a somewhat different role compared to the one he played on stage. For the film's lead roles, Goldwyn used Joel McCrea (who was already under contract to him), and Sylvia Sidney and Humphrey Bogart (borrowed from Walter Wanger and Warner Bros. respectively).

Dead End

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Dead End details the events during one day in one of the streets of the East Side tenements of New York City, telling the tale of Dave Connell (McCrea), an unemployed architect who lives on the street but dreams of a better life; Drina Gordon (Sidney) who secretly loves Dave and also must concern herself with preventing her young brother Tommy (Halop) from turning into a criminal; and "Baby Face" Martin (Bogart), a killer who returns to what is his childhood street to see his mother (Main) and an old girlfriend (Claire Trevor). The story was relatively fresh in its time, but elements were subsequently used in many other films so that it all seems somewhat familiar today. Nevertheless, it remains a fairly compelling tale - one that is well-acted by McCrea and Sidney, and peopled by memorable characters. Bogart's portrayal of Martin is effective and realistic, and was further evidence of the star potential he had, even though it would take almost another four years before Warner Bros. saw the light and a few lucky breaks allowed him to finally make his mark in the likes of High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon. The Dead End kids are probably the film's most memorable element and their success led to many years of films as they matured from juvenile delinquency to the more mature though increasingly slapstick delinquency of the Bowery Boys. A fine cast of supporting players includes, in addition to those mentioned above, Allen Jenkins, Wendy Barrie, James Burke, Minor Watson, Ward Bond, and Charles Halton.

The film was directed by William Wyler who got his accustomed good performances from the actors, but his efforts were dwarfed by the impressive tenement set that was constructed on a Hollywood sound stage. It apparently was viewed as quite an accomplishment at the time, even surpassing the impressiveness of the one constructed in the theatre where the stage version of the play was mounted. Wyler had wanted to film on location, but was over-ruled by Goldwyn. In this instance, Wyler would have been right. Even though the set was impressive in scope, it never rings completely true on the screen, preventing the film from achieving its full potential. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards (picture, supporting actress [Trevor], cinematography, and art direction), but didn't win any.

MGM's DVD release presents the film full frame in accord with its original aspect ratio. The image looks tremendous reflecting impressive source material. It's crisp with a very fine gray scale range in evidence. Speckles and scratches are virtually non-existent and there are no edge effects. The mono sound is clear and free of hiss. There's also a Spanish mono track and English, French, and Spanish sub-titles. The only supplement is the film's theatrical trailer. Recommended.


Stage Door (1937)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on March 1st, 2005)

This RKO production is one of those ensemble pieces that really works well. Based on the Edna Ferber/George S. Kaufman play of the same title, though apparently considerably altered for the screen version, it's a great showcase for such wise-cracking actresses as Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, and Lucille Ball, as well as the then-somewhat-tarnished star of Katharine Hepburn. Also appearing are the likes of Gail Patrick and Ann Miller (in a very early role).

Stage Door

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The film basically follows the fortunes of aspiring young actresses living at a theatrical boarding house. For most, it is a hand-to-mouth existence, resulting in a great sense of camaraderie. Others (here embodied by the upper class character played by Katharine Hepburn), perceived to be mere dabblers in an acting career and with family money as a safety net, face the resentment of the group. For all, however, theatrical producers (represented by the ever-reliable Adolphe Menjou) are like fly paper as they offer the possibilities of jobs, meals, companionship, and perhaps more.

Stage Door has heart, wit, and talent aplenty on display, and for many will be a film you've not seen before or perhaps not even heard of. Its director is Gregory La Cava, a man with a lengthy record of work in silent films including some collaboration with W.C. Fields. Known for an unobtrusive style, he had a good run in the 1930s with the likes of Symphony of Six Million (1932, top-notch soap opera), Gabriel over the White House (1933, a political fantasy with the great Walter Huston and previously available on laserdisc), She Married Her Boss (1935, with Claudette Colbert), and My Man Godfrey (1936, excellent screwball comedy available on DVD from Criterion). Stage Door was La Cava's follow-up to the latter and more than any of them demonstrated his rapport with actors. I guarantee you won't regret taking a chance on Warners' new DVD release of it.

The full frame transfer is impressive. Either the source material is in very good shape or Warners has done a thorough job of cleaning it up for its DVD release. The image has nice deep black levels and very good shadow detail. Contrast is excellent. There is modest grain in evidence. The mono sound is in great shape with virtually no age-related hiss or crackle evident. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The supplements consist of a 1939 Lux Radio Theater dramatization of the film with Ginger Rogers and Rosalind Russell, the Vitaphone musical short Ups and Downs of modest entertainment value though worthwhile for the opportunity to see early work by Phil Silvers and June Allyson, and the film's theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.


Bringing Up Baby (1938)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on March 1st, 2005)

It seems almost impossible to conceive of the fact that when originally released in 1938, Howard Hawks's Bringing Up Baby was not a box-office success. In fact, it was at that time the final nail in a temporary coffin for Katharine Hepburn's film career. She retreated to the New York stage for several years before returning to the screen triumphantly in 1940's The Philadelphia Story. Howard Hawks was the director of Bringing Up Baby because he was casting about for a project to undertake while casting and budgetary issues delayed Gunga Din, another film project that he hoped to direct. (That job eventually went to George Stevens.) The film originated in a short story in "Collier's" magazine by Hagar Wilde that Hawks liked. It concerned a paleontologist who hopes to convince a rich society patron to invest $1 million in the museum where he is on the verge of completing the erection of an immense dinosaur skeleton with the discovery of the final crucial bone - the intercostal clavicle. Unfortunately, his best efforts are continually thwarted by a young heiress, a dog named George, and particularly a leopard named Baby. That's a rather thin description of the story, but the comedic complications have to be seen to be believed.

Bringing Up Baby

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Bringing Up Baby all along was intended as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle (she played the young heiress, Susan Vance), but the male lead (paleontologist David Huxley) was offered to the likes of Ronald Colman and Fredric March among others before Cary Grant who had a three-picture contract with RKO agreed to take it on because he wanted to work with Hawks. Hawks rounded out his cast with a great collection of supporting players including Charles Ruggles, Barry Fitzgerald, Walter Catlett, May Robson, and Fritz Feld, not to mention Asta as George the dog. Hepburn and Grant work beautifully together, particularly memorable being the sequence in the dinner club where first one and then the other manage to rip parts of the other's clothes before they are forced to retreat in virtual lockstep with Grant pressed up tightly against Hepburn's back. Walter Catlett has some of the film's funniest scenes playing the local town constable. His part was an afterthought. It was introduced when Hepburn asked that he be found a part after providing her with some very good advice on how to underplay her role to best comedic effect. The film was orchestrated with the usual Hawks briskness and characterized by some overlapping dialogue (a technique which Hawks would later utilize to its greatest effectiveness in 1940's His Girl Friday). The scenes with the animals are well shot (Grant was apparently rather leery of his scenes with the panther while Hepburn was more relaxed about them) and a mock fight between Baby and George is impressively choreographed. The film is a real barrel of laughs in both a verbal and slapstick fashion, and never fails to satisfy on repeated viewings.

Warner Bros.'s DVD release is a two-disc special edition. Disc One contains a very fine transfer of the film presented full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio. The film's source material was in pretty poor condition so a significant amount of restorative work was needed. The resulting effort has been worth the lengthy wait. For the most part the image is quite sharp with deep blacks, clean whites, and very good shadow detail. The film's natural grain is in evidence providing the image with a nice film-like impression. Some minor speckling is detectable, but not at all intrusive. That and an oocasional instance of softness are the only things that prevent this from being a homerun. The English mono sound is in good shape, with clear dialogue although there is a some background hiss evident. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are also provided. Peter Bogdanovich provides a thorough audio commentary. I know people have mixed reactions to his commentaries, but I find them to be very good in terms of providing an understanding of directorial technique and a general overview of the pertinent production details. That's the case here. The first disc concludes with a gallery of five trailers for Howard Hawks films including Bringing Up Baby.

Disc Two contains two very impressive documentaries. The first is the feature-length Cary Grant: A Man Apart produced by Robert Trachtenberg for TCM. At almost an hour and a half in length, it gives as thorough a portrait of an actor's life as I've seen. Then there's the Howard Hawks documentary in the "Men Who Made the Movies" series. Lasting almost an hour, it provides some marvelous recollections and opinions from Hawks himself on his career, nicely scripted by Richard Schickel and narrated by Sydney Pollack. Rounding out the disc are two 1938 Technicolor shorts - a Vitaphone effort called Campus Cinderella and the cartoon A Star Is Hatched. Very highly recommended.



On to Part Two

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