|Classic News, Reviews Round-Up #52 and New Announcements
This new edition of Classic Coming Attractions has four sections. Firstly, I have some follow-up on the previous column's discussion of the classic outlook for 2009. Included is some exciting news from Warner Bros. about the studio's new initiative for classic titles. Secondly, I have a summary of the key points from Warners' recent chat at the Home Theater Forum. The review section this time includes coverage of Waterloo Bridge, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Rachel Rachel, Inside Daisy Clover, The Greatest Classic Films Collection: Best Picture Winners and Romantic Dramas, Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume Three, and The Sidney Poitier Collection (all from Warner Bros.); Our Man in Havana and Five (from Sony); Funny Face: Centennial Collection (from Paramount); Magnificent Obsession (from Criterion); Clint Eastwood: American Icon Collection (from Universal); and Enemy at the Door (from Acorn Media). And finally, I offer the usual section of classic announcements other than those already mentioned in this column's first two sections. I hope you'll enjoy it all, so let's get started.
Follow-up on the Classic Outlook from the Previous Column
In the last edition of Classic Coming Attractions, I discussed the 2009 classic release outlook for each of the major studios. Much was uncertain at that time, but since then important news about a new Warner Bros. initiative to make more classic titles available has been announced. The new line of releases is called the Warner Archive Collection and the approach is one in which the studio will offer classic titles to purchasers through its online store (WBshop.com) exclusively. At present, about 135 classic titles (released theatrically 1975 or earlier) are available (see list below), copies of which can be made for the customer on demand and shipped out within days. Included are many early MGM titles starring the likes of Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, a number of Cary Grant efforts, several silent films, and a handful of westerns as well. All titles have been transferred in their correct aspect ratio, but no extras other than any existing theatrical trailer accompany them. Retail price is $20 per title and for a limited time a 20% discount and free shipping are being offered. Warners expects to add at least 20 new titles (both movies and TV shows) to the list each month so that over 300 will be available by the end of the year. The goal is eventually to make all 5000-odd titles in Warners' catalogue available.
There are two caveats. Firstly, the discs will be burned rather than pressed which raises obvious concerns over longevity, although a proprietary burn technology is being used that Warners feels is much more reliable than what one can do at home on one's own computer. Warners guarantees the quality and will stand behind it. Secondly, at present the site will only ship to U.S. addresses. Warners, however, has stated that there will be worldwide availability shortly (on all titles for which it has worldwide rights, which is most of them), perhaps even as early as in a few days. Assuming that to be the case, Warners is to be congratulated on coming up with this innovative approach for making available to all enthusiasts many titles which otherwise might never have seen the light of day via a traditional DVD retail release.
Here are the Warner Archive classic titles available as of Monday March 23rd.
Abdication, The (1974)
Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)
Actress, The (1953)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The (1939)
Adventures of Mark Twain, The (1944)
Ah, Wilderness! (1935)
Al Capone (1959)
All Fall Down (1962)
Along the Great Divide (1951)
Angel Baby (1961)
Baby Maker, The (1970)
Bamboo Blonde, The (1946)
Beast of the City, The (1932)
Beggar's Opera, The (1953)
Bhowani Junction (1956)
Big Circus, The (1959)
Big House, The (1930)
Break of Hearts (1935)
Bright Leaf (1950)
Cain and Mabel (1936)
Canyon River (1956)
Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969)
Captain Sindbad (1963)
Carbine Williams (1952)
Cattle Town (1952)
Christopher Strong (1933)
Church Mouse, The (1934)
Citadel, The (1938)
Close to My Heart (1951)
Command, The (1954)
Convicts 4 (1962)
Crime & Punishment U.S.A. (1959)
Crowded Sky, The (1960)
D.I., The (1957)
Dance, Fools, Dance (1931)
Darby's Rangers (1958)
Defector, The (1966)
Devil Is a Sissy, The (1936)
Distant Trumpet, A (1964)
Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)
Dream of Kings, A (1969)
Dream Wife (1953)
Drums of Africa (1963)
Dude Goes West, The (1948)
Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971)
Edison the Man (1940)
El Condor (1970)
Exit Smiling (1926)
Forsaking All Others (1934)
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The (1962)
George Raft Story, The (1961)
Goodbye, My Fancy (1951)
Grasshopper, The (1970)
H.M. Pulham, Esquire (1941)
Honky Tonk (1941)
I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. (1951)
I Was an American Spy (1951)
Ice Follies of 1939 (1939)
Idiot's Delight (1939)
Interrupted Melody (1955)
Invitation, The (1952)
John Loves Mary (1949)
King of the Roaring 20s (1961)
Kiss, The (1929)
Laughing Sinners (1931)
Lion Is in the Streets, A (1953)
Little Minister, The (1934)
Lost Boundaries (1949)
Love on the Run (1936)
Made in Paris (1966)
Magnificent Yankee, The (1950)
Man from Galveston, The (1963)
Man from God's Country (1958)
Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, The (1973)
Mating Game, The (1959)
Men in White (1934)
Money Trap, The (1965)
Moonlighter, The (1953)
Mr. Lucky (1943)
Mrs. Parkington (1944)
My Blood Runs Cold (1965)
Oklahoman, The (1957)
On Borrowed Time (1939)
Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)
Painting the Clouds with Sunshine (1951)
Payment on Demand (1951)
Private Lives (1931)
Quentin Durward (1955)
Rain People, The (1969)
Rasputin and the Empress (1932)
Red Lily, The (1924)
Red Mill, The (1927)
Room for One More (1952)
Sergeant, The (1968)
Shining Hour, The (1938)
Shopworn Angel, The (1938)
Sins of Rachel Cade, The (1961)
Smart Set, The (1928)
So This Is Love (1953)
Somewhere I'll Find You (1942)
Souls for Sale (1923)
Spring Fever (1927)
Strange Interlude (1932)
Sunrise at Campobello (1960)
Sweet November (1968)
Temptress, The (1926)
They Only Kill Their Masters (1972)
This Woman Is Dangerous (1952)
Three Comrades (1938)
Three Sailors and a Girl (1953)
Toast of New York, The (1937)
Too Hot to Handle (1938)
Tugboat Annie (1933)
Trail of '98, The (1928)
We Were Dancing (1942)
When Ladies Meet (1941)
Wild Orchids (1929)
Young Tom Edison (1940)
Aside from this WB initiative, the release announcements from other studios seem to confirm fears of a dramatic slowdown in the number of new classic titles coming out. The May-June period, so often a fruitful time for war and western fans, is a wasteland indeed this year. Of the three studios that have been most reliable in the past in this regard (Fox, MGM, Universal), only MGM is offering anything substantial - four westerns (one of them a Blu-ray of a previously available DVD title) and two war films and even that slate is notably reduced in numbers from past years. Fox has only two titles for us (both war-related with one of them a new edition of a previously available title) while Universal has nothing. Paramount's contribution is new Centennial Collection editions of two previously available John Wayne westerns. Full details are available below in the New Announcements section.
On a related note, there has over the past few years been considerable interest in the road show version of John Wayne's The Alamo. To date only the shorter, wide-release version has been made available on DVD with the elements previously used for the road show version which was released on laserdisc no longer in decent enough condition to make a DVD release viable. Film preservationist Robert Harris is now spearheading an initiative to have the road show version restored and released on both DVD and Blu-ray. See his recent column here at The Digital Bits for further details.
Warner Bros. Chat with the Home Theater Forum
On Monday, March 23rd, Warner Bros. participated in a live chat with the Home Theater Forum. Representing the studio were George Feltenstein (SVP Catalogue Marketing), Ronnee Sass (VP Publicity and Promotion), and Janet Keller (Manager of Publicity). Ron Epstein of the Home Theater Forum moderated. The full transcript can be found here. Following is a list of the key items concerning classic titles.
1. The studio indicated that its regular DVD program of retail initiatives is not being replaced by the new Warner Archive initiative, so we can continue to expect those great Warner box sets. Some releases that were anticipated via the latter route will now appear in the Archive line instead, however.
2. The studio wants to honour major silent films such as The Big Parade, The Wind, The Crowd, Greed, etc. in the way they were presented by Kevin Brownlow in the Thames series of silents. To that end, WB has been in discussions with Photoplay (Kevin's company) to work together to update the restorations on all those premiere silent pictures. Meanwhile, expect about 20 other silent films through WarnerArchive.com in addition to those already announced.
3. Those interested in the Abbott & Costello films Captain Kidd/Jack and the Beanstalk/Rio Rita will have their patience rewarded.
4. Warners owns the entire Tarzan feature film library regardless of who originally released them theatrically and they will all be coming out in the near future.
5. More Jane Powell musicals and Ginger Rogers comedies via Warner Archive later this year.
6. The studio is evaluating various series films for release. A retail set of the Monogram Charlie Chan films, restored from the original nitrate negatives, is coming in early 2010.
7. The fifth Film Noir box set is coming in a few months. The actual titles were not revealed, but they do NOT include Riffraff, The Clay Pigeon, Armored Car Robbery, I Died a Thousand Times, The Locket, Stranger on the Third Floor, or Born to Be Bad.
8. A release of a Complete Show Boat Collection is still planned, with Show Boat (1951) likely receiving an Ultra Resolution treatment.
9. The Magnificent Ambersons is still in the planning stages, with a significant exploration of the film's production history to be included. Journey Into Fear will come out at the same time. No date set yet.
10. Collections of shorts (McDoakes, Dogville, Pete Smith, etc.) will start to come out in the Warner Archive in 2010.
11. Warners now optimistic that a release of No Time for Sergeants will be possible.
12. Early James Cagney films will soon arrive in Warner Archive.
13. The nitrate negative for Merry Widow (1934) did not burn in the Eastman House fire and the studio hopes to restore the film shortly.
14. Bowery Boys films coming in 2010. Original negative for Mr. Hex located.
15. A 2009 Hallowe'en Karloff/Lugosi retail set will include Frankenstein 1970, The Walking Dead, Zombies on Broadway, and You'll Find Out.
16. No more Gangster Collection retail box sets are planned, but more Bogart/Cagney/ Robinson/Raft gangster films will be out shortly on Warner Archive.
17. Mary, Mary (1963, Debbie Reynolds) on Warner Archive in September.
18. The Prize (Paul Newman) is being remastered at present. No release date set.
19. Mission to Moscow, The Tall Stranger, and Colorado Territory coming to Warner Archive this year.
20. TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams Collection - Volume 2 coming this summer to retail.
21. Jean Simmons films such as Home Before Dark and Young Bess coming through Warner Archive in 2010. This Could Be the Night and Until They Sail require remastering, but are planned.
22. The Maltese Falcon on Blu-ray in 2011.
23. The remaining five unreleased Judy Garland films will be released, most likely when the studio issues its new restoration of A Star Is Born, tentatively in spring 2010.
24. Warners has had some discussions with Criterion regarding licensing a limited group of films at the behest of their respective directors. No titles specified.
25. About 25 more westerns will be added to Warner Archive later this year, mainly ones from the 1940s and 1950s. Several Randolph Scott westerns will appear in April, including Trail Street.
26. A Jean Harlow collection will come to retail for her centenary in 2011. No titles specified.
27. John Garfield titles are coming to Warner Archive this summer.
28. The Constant Nymph remains in rights limbo, though the studio is trying to free it up.
After first being filmed in 1931 with Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass, Waterloo Bridge received its definitive screen treatment in 1940 when MGM produced its Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh starring version of the Robert Sherwood play.
The story about an army officer and young ballerina who fall in love during wartime is very well acted by both Leigh and Taylor. Leigh has much the greater screen time and makes much of her well-written role of the young woman who believes her soldier dead and eventually sinks into prostitution to support herself, but it is Taylor whose presence one really remembers from the film. Twenty-nine years old at the time, he manages quite a mature performance that realistically captures both the youthful soldier and older general that his character spans during the course of the story. Taylor always maintained that Waterloo Bridge was his favorite of all his pictures. The powerful and poignant film delivers MGM's typically superior production values and also benefits from a fine array of supporting players such as Lucile Watson as Taylor's mother, Virginia Field as Leigh's best friend, and Maria Ouspenskaya as the head of the ballet troupe. And of course we have C. Aubrey Smith in a small role - a comfortable presence in most MGM films of the time set in Britain. Warners' DVD transfer does not appear to come from superior source material as there is noticeable wear evident, but the image does offer a pleasing amount of grain and a generally sharp overall look with good contrast. The mono audio is in good shape. The only supplement is a theatrical trailer - a surprise from Warner Bros. who usually give us a good selection of short subject material on such releases. Still, the film's the thing and as such the release is recommended.
I know there has been some demand for the 1969 remake, Goodbye Mr. Chips, but for the life of me I can't really understand the attraction. The James Hilton story had already been given a definitive screen version by MGM in 1939 with Robert Donat winning the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance of the title character.
In the remake, only Peter O'Toole's endearing playing of the same role offers any reason to watch. Petula Clark is okay as his wife, but the whole thing sinks under the weight of a dragged-out story. At 154 minutes, it takes almost three-quarters of an hour more to cover barely the same ground in the remake. Even worse, we're subjected to a candidate for some of the worst music on film (courtesy of composer Leslie Bricusse). There's not a memorable song in the bunch, either musically or lyrically. A familiar-sounding hymn sung in a church service midway through the film easily bests anything else you hear. Nor does the effort to intone some of the music as though letting us in on some of the characters' inner thoughts help at all. John Williams' orchestration of the music does temper its basic unpalatability somewhat, however. Warner Bros. delivers a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that at least offers a pleasing view of the proceedings. Colour fidelity appears good and the fresh greens and browns of the English countryside and school grounds are well-captured. Modest grain is evident and overall the image imparts a nice film-like feel. The Dolby 5.1 audio is a plus although surround activity is minimal. The film's overture, entr'acte, and exit music are included. The only supplements are trailers for the film and for the 1939 original. If you haven't seen this version, I suppose there's a case to be made for seeing it once just for O'Toole's efforts. Hence a rental at best.
Sony's second wave of its mysteriously-named Martini Movies line has appeared and I've been able to take a look at two of the titles - Our Man in Havana and Five.
Our Man in Havana was adapted by Graham Greene from his own novel and directed by Carol Reed. With this talent behind the camera and Guinness along with Noel Coward, Burl Ives, Maureen O'Hara, Ralph Richardson, and Ernie Kovacs in front, the film should have been a slam-dunk. But it isn't. Filmed both on location in Havana just after the Cuban Revolution and in Britain's Shepperton studios, the story concerns an Englishman selling vacuum cleaners in Havana who supplements his income (in order to support his horse-crazy daughter) by making up espionage secrets that he sells to the British Secret Service. The premise sounds promising, but the execution is less so as the film never really decides what it wants to be - satirical comedy or thriller. Guinness also seems rather uninspired throughout, possibly because his conception of his character differed from that of Carol Reed who wanted him to play it straight. Coward as the local Secret Service representative and Richardson in a small role as the head of the Secret Service are much the best things in the film. The black and white 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is quite decent with a generally pleasing gray scale and mild grain in evidence. The mono sound is clear and distortion free. The theatrical trailer is the only supplement of consequence. For Alec Guinness completists only. Much better and virtually a rediscovery given its previous unavailability on home video is Five, a 1951 low budget post atomic holocaust story from writer/director Arch Oboler. The film follows the fortunes of five survivors who seek shelter in an abandoned house (Oboler's Frank Lloyd Wright designed cliff house was used for much of the filming). The film is uncompromising in its presentation of the after effects of atomic war and well acted on the whole by a cast of relative unknowns (Susan Douglas, William Phipps, James Anderson Charles Lampkin, Earl Lee). Slow-moving and talky at times, it is an nonetheless an intelligent and thoughtful meditation that will reward the patient viewer. Sony's full frame transfer is very impressive for such a low budget effort. There is some dirt and debris, but overall it's sharp and well detailed with a good grayscale evident. The mono sound is quite acceptable and the only supplement of consequence is the theatrical trailer. Recommended, but beware Sony's misguided efforts at altering the box art title from Five to 5ive.
It's a good thing we have Criterion around with its relationship with Universal, otherwise we might still be waiting for most of Douglas Sirk's melodramas of the 1950s to appear on DVD from the studio itself. A half-dozen years ago, Criterion gave us All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, and now we have 1954's Magnificent Obsession.
The film is based on a Lloyd C. Douglas novel of the same title and focuses on the relationship between a young man (Rock Hudson) with more money than judgment and a woman (Jane Wyman) whose husband dies as an indirect consequence of the Hudson's character's recklessness. Magnificent Obsession was really the first of Sirk's films to be associated with the dramatic, sometimes ostentatious use of color, lighting, prop, and costume that for him was more than simply a visual style. Rather, it was Sirk's own method of commenting on the film content, drawing our attention to its truths and absurdities in a way that is both eye-catching visually and thought-provoking in its directness. The more one watches Sirk's films from this period, the more one can appreciate the effectiveness of Sirk's approach. Films like Magnificent Obsession are melodramatic; their basic stories almost predictable; and their stars sometimes considered among the more superficial of the time. It would be easy to dismiss them, yet once seen, they draw one back for repeated viewings because there is always something new to discover. It was Sirk's great gift to be able to deliver solid entertainment while accenting the visual components of the film medium as a way to comment on the narrow-mindedness of the social order of the times, particularly the tendency for one level of society to look down upon another. Many of his films focused on families or individuals affluent in a material sense, but emotionally or sexually starved at the same time. The endings of Sirk's films are seldom neat in a traditional Hollywood sense. Usually something gives, and it's either the accepted social norms or the happiness of the protagonists. Magnificent Obsession, and All That Heaven Allows, are perhaps the quintessential Sirk experiences. Criterion's two-disc presentation delivers a superb 2.00:1 anamorphic transfer that offers a very clean, crisp and well contrasted image with vibrant colour. The mono sound quality is also high with clear dialogue and no hint of hiss or distortion. The most important of the numerous supplements is the inclusion of the 1935 version of the film directed by John Stahl, a somewhat different interpretation of the story that is entertaining in its own right, but lacking the dramatic flare of Sirk's version. The other important supplements include a very fine audio commentary by film scholar Thomas Doherty and a lengthy German documentary in which Sirk reminisces about his career. Very highly recommended.