|Classic Reviews Round-Up #60 and New Announcements
Welcome to the latest edition of Classic Coming Attractions. I've got a lengthy list of 25 reviews for you this time, including Ruggles of Red Gap, The House of Seven Gables, and Dragnet from the Universal Vault Series in conjunction with Create Space; Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Mission to Moscow, They Won't Forget, The Iron Mistress, The Badlanders, and The Fastest Gun Alive from the Warner Archive; Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volume 1 and Volume 2 from Sony; The Group and Trapeze from MGM in conjunction with Create Space; America's Sweetheart: Gale Storm and A Gospel Calling: Mahalia Jackson Sings from Infinity Entertainment Group; The Green Hornet Strikes Again on DVD-R and BD-R, and The Green Archer on BD-R from Restored Serials Super Restoration Corp.; A Walk in the Sun and Island of Desire from VCI; The African Queen on BD and Have Gun, Will Travel: Season Four, Volume 1 from Paramount; The Ladykillers on BD from Lionsgate; and All Hell Broke Loose and Come Hell or High Water from Alliance Canada.
The latest classic title announcements are also updated as usual, along with the new Announcements database.
I hope you'll enjoy it all.
One of 1935's Best Picture nominees, Ruggles of Red Gap is now available in Universal's Vault Series in conjunction with Create Space via Amazon.com as a manufactured-on-demand (MOD) DVD-R.
Originally made by Paramount, this is one of the 1930s' most enduring comedy films, carried along by an outstanding performance by Charles Laughton. He plays English butler Marmaduke Ruggles whose employer (Roland Young) loses him in a poker game to American Egbert Floud (Charles Ruggles). As a result, Ruggles travels to Red Gap, Washington to take up duties for his new employer and aspiring society wife Effie (Mary Boland). A series of misunderstandings results in Ruggles being taken for a visiting British army officer rather than the servant he is. The film is a charming and lighthearted affair with a number of belly-laughs that never gets old no matter how often you see it - and it stands up to repeated viewings as well as any 1930s film I know. Laughton's comic timing is impeccable, but the film benefits equally from its wealth of familiar supporting players. Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland are the predominant ones - perfect foils for each other and featured in a number of films together in the 30s. But also adding luster to the proceedings are the likes of the aforementioned Roland Young as well as Zasu Pitts, Maude Eburne, Lucien Littlefield, and James Burke. The film is also remembered for Laughton's moving recital of the Gettyburg's address and Leo McCarey's crisp direction. Universal's DVD release is barebones - no menu, no supplements, but the full frame transfer is very good. The image is bright and crisp with slight grain in evidence. It's much better looking than the previous laserdisc release. There is still the odd soft-looking sequence, but the overall effect is very positive. The mono audio delivers dialogue that's clear and free of hiss for the most part. Highly recommended.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy is available as a Warner Archive title. The WB production (released in the spring of 1939) stars Edward G. Robinson as an FBI agent on the trail of Nazi agents in pre-World War II America.
Based on a highly-publicized 1938 German spy trial in New York, the film was the first of the overtly anti-Hitler films made in Hollywood and represented a considerable gamble for WB given the possible consequences in terms of German reaction against the studio's interests in that country and the possible ramifications for relatives of cast and crew still living in Germany or countries under German control. The film's production and eventual presentation occasioned numerous protests and sabotage activity by German interests in the U.S and abroad. One of the worst consequences after the German occupation of Poland was the reported hanging of seven theatre operators who had screened the film in Warsaw. The film itself, shot in a semi-documentary style, is a gripping tale of the involvement of the German-American Bund in respect to fomenting pro-German sentiment in the U.S. as well as its more-overt spy activities. Aside from the always effective Robinson (who doesn't appear until well into the film), Paul Lukas and Francis Lederer stand out as the head of the New York German Bund and an aspiring German spy respectively. George Sanders also appears as a Nazi party representative on a German ocean liner. Otherwise the cast is a mix of little-known players (some of whom were given fictitious names as well as excessive makeup to hide their true identities) and some familiar Hollywood character actors (Henry O'Neill, Joe Sawyer, Sig Rumann, Eily Malyon). Under-appreciated director Anatole Litvak instills urgency and suspense in his orchestration of Milton Krims's and John Wexley's taut screenplay. Note that some of the footage at the end relating to the Nazi occupation of Norway, Belgium, and Holland was added for the film's reissue in 1940. The Warner Archive full frame presentation is very good. It is sharp with superior contrast, notably boasting quite deep blacks. Speckles and scratches are evident, but they don't detract from the viewing pleasure. The mono sound provides clear dialogue. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.
Sony continues with its renaissance in terms of classic titles on DVD with the release of Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volume 1. It contains four Columbia films on two discs.
One of them can rightly be considered film noir - The Killer That Stalked New York (1950) - while the others - Two of a Kind (1951), Bad for Each Other (1953) and The Glass Wall (1953) - skirt the style somewhat. The Killer That Stalked New York finds Evelyn Keyes involved in a scheme with her husband (Charles Korvin) to bring stolen diamonds in the country, but she also brings something else back - smallpox, which she inadvertently starts to spread amongst New York's inhabitants. The film's noir pedigree rests on both the smallpox, which can be taken as a form of contamination from abroad akin to the spread of communist ideology, and the production's atmospheric filming of the city. Two of a Kind has a couple of noir icons - Lizabeth Scott and Edmond O'Brien - involved in an otherwise standard scheme to dupe a couple out of their money by having O'Brien pose as a missing heir. Lizabeth Scott is also front and centre in Bad for Each Other, in which she tries to subvert doctor Charlton Heston from his true medical calling. The femme fatale approach is present, as is the archetypical returning vet figure, but the plot is more soap opera than gritty noir. The Glass Wall has Gloria Grahame as a down-on-her-luck woman who gets involved with an immigrant (Vittorio Gassman) who jumps quarantine in order to try and have his petition for a visa granted on human rights grounds. New York is once again well photographed in what is otherwise an unpretentious little suspenser. None of these films are world-beaters, but each is a brisk and entertaining experience well worth your attention. Just to see the likes of Scott, Keyes, and Grahame in action is compensation enough for the time spent. Sony has restored and remastered all four titles and they are presented full frame as originally projected. They all look quite clean and image sharpness is generally impressive. Shadow detail is also notably good given the nature of the photography. The mono sound on each offers no cause for complaint. Supplements include the original theatrical trailer for each film, comments on Two of a Kind by cast-member Terry Moore, and a good episode of TV's All Star Theatre ("The Payoff") with Howard Duff and Janet Blair. Highly recommended.
Not content with just one volume, Sony also gives us Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volume 2. Again we have four Columbia films on two discs and again only one really qualifies as film noir - Night Editor (1946).
Planned as the first of a series of films (which didn't pan out) in which a night editor recounts stories over a card table in a newspaper office at night, the film tells the story of a cop (William Gargan) whose extramarital affair with icy Janis Carter leads him to forsake his duty when the pair witness a murder. The noir connections are solidly in place in respect to Carter's femme fatale and her compassionless use of sex to advance her lifestyle, the typically shadowy atmosphere, and the use of voiceover in the form of a narrator to advance the story. The other three films star or feature Cleo Moore, somewhat of a Marilyn Monroe wannabe, but capable of earnest if at times mannered performances. In One Girl's Confession (1953), she's a girl out of prison after doing time for stealing a chunk of cash - money that she now wants to retrieve but needing a trustworthy person to get it for her. Hugo Haas wrote the script and directed as well as playing the major role of the café owner where Cleo's a waitress. Over-Exposed (1956) finds Cleo getting an opportunity to learn the roles of being a photographer but finds herself mixed up with crooks as she tries to land a job at a classy restaurant in town. Richard Crenna appears as a newspaper reporter who falls for Cleo. In Women's Prison (1955), Moore has merely a featured role as an inmate in a prison where Ida Lupino is a sadistic warden and Howard Duff the prison doctor. Audrey Totter and Jan Sterling are two inmates whose actions spearhead a revolt against Lupino. All three of these films are more melodrama than anything else, with each being compactly constructed and providing diverting entertainment. The films look and sound on a par with the very good quality of those in Volume 1. This time two of them (Women's Prison and Over-Exposed) are anamorphically enhanced in line with their 1.85:1 aspect ratios. Supplements include original theatrical trailers for all but Night Editor and a 1954 episode from All Star Theatre ("Remember to Live", with Cleo Moore and Dane Clark). The overall enjoyment quotient may not be quite as high for Bad Girls of Film Noir: Volume 2 as for Volume 1, but it is still appreciable enough to warrant a recommendation for the set.
MGM jumped onto the manufactured-on-demand bandwagon late last year and has a number of titles available through Create Space via Amazon.com. The Group is a 1966 United Artists release of Mary McCarthy's popular and generally acclaimed novel about the lives of eight young women in the 1930s after they graduate from Vassar.
As well as I can remember having read it quite a few years ago, the book has a pot-boiler feel to it, but one that's leavened with some sharp wit and well-observed consideration of social issues of the time. The film, directed by Sidney Lumet, generally succeeds well in translating the book to the big screen although its evocation of the 1930s era is uneven. At 150 minutes, it's a long film, but it never seems so as the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent. Even at that length though, the film struggles to cover the many plot threads and the screen time for several of the group is severely truncated. Joan Hackett (whose virginity is taken and her heart broken by a hip Village-type), Joanna Pettet (whose dreams are gradually shattered by a womanizing, drunken husband), and Shirley Knight (who has to deal with a manic father) come off best in a cast that includes Elizabeth Hartman, Candice Bergen, Hal Holbrook, Larry Hagman, Richard Mulligan, and Jessica Walter. MGM/Amazon's DVD-R is incorrectly labeled as being full frame. The actual transfer is delivered at a 1.66:1 ratio (which appears to be correct judging by the composition), although it is not anamorphically enhanced. Despite that, the image is quite pleasing. Colour fidelity and vibrancy as well as image sharpness are all very good and the image is quite clean as well - likely sourced from a print that was in very good shape. The mono sound delivers clear dialogue without background hiss. There are no supplements. The film has repeat viewing potential, but I'd try a rental first to see if the film is to your taste.
Filmed by Universal in 1940, The House of the Seven Gables is a fine adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel. It is now available as a MOD DVD-R in Universal's Vault Series in conjunction with Create Space via Amazon.com.
The story is that of the Pyncheon family whose old Massachusetts home is built on stolen land and begins when father Gerald announces the family is bankrupt and that the ancestral home is to be sold. That provokes a feud between sons Clifford (Vincent Price), who is in favour of the sale so that he can move to New York and wed his cousin Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay), and Jaffrey (George Sanders) who wants to keep the house, partly because he believes tales that suggest it harbours vast riches secreted somewhere within its walls. The film is a constantly interesting and entertaining experience, acted with conviction and some relish at times by the principals. It captures the early 19th century atmosphere well and ages its principals and sets fairly realistically as the story progresses. The House of the Seven Gables vies with 1937's Confession as the zenith of director Joe May's Hollywood career after many years in Germany where he was one of the founders of German cinema. Universal's full frame transfer is fairly good. Image detail is notable although overall sharpness is not quite as impressive as some of the other releases in the first set of the Vault Series titles. Grain is apparent though variable in intensity throughout. The mono sound is in good shape. There are no supplements. Recommended.
I can't say as I ever expected to see a collection of early Gale Storm movies issued on DVD, but that is indeed what we now have on a three-DVD set released by Infinity Entertainment Group as America's Sweetheart: Gale Storm.
Perhaps Gale's passing last year at age 87 prompted the release. Appearing under Infinity's Hollywood Select Video imprimatur, the set contains eight feature films including Gale's debut performance in Tom Brown's School Days (1940). An RKO production, it's by far the best film in the set, as the others are all B pictures or worse from the likes of Monogram and PRC. Although it's not the equal of the later British version of the classic Rugby public school tale starring Robert Newton, I've always had a soft spot for the RKO effort as I enjoy Sir Cedric Hardwicke's take on headmaster Thomas Arnold and the work of Jimmy Lydon and Freddie Bartholomew as the main schoolboy characters. The film does manage to convey a British atmosphere despite the lack of a British cast. Gale Storm's role is that of a young girl named Effie working at a local murphy (baked potato) shop. She appeared in the film by virtue of a contract awarded her by RKO after she won a national talent search contest on CBS radio. The contract was not renewed after six months and Gale's work over the next decade was mainly in B pictures of various genres. The DVD set contains seven more of her first 15 pictures. The best of them are Let's Go Collegiate (Monogram, 1941) and Jesse James at Bay (Republic, 1941). The former benefits from the pairing of Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland (stars of a series of mystery films for Monogram at the time) in a tale about a big college rowing race. Storm is Darro's girlfriend. Jesse James at Bay is an above-average Roy Rogers western with Rogers playing both hero and villain. Storm is a reporter who falls for Roy. The quality of the rest of the features drops off markedly. Uncle Joe (1941) is an independently made feature that offers only some amusement from Slim Somerville and Zasu Pitts for diversion. Rhythm Parade (Monogram, 1942) has Gale Storm first billed, but the semi-musical effort has a weak story line about a would-be singer who is also trying to look after her sister's baby. Wooden Robert Lowery is the leading man. The forgettable City of Missing Girls (Indep., 1941), Gambling Daughters (PRC. 1941 - aka The Professor's Gamble), and Lure of the Islands (Monogram, 1942) round out the set. Despite the uneven quality of the eight films, it is good to have them available on DVD as they provide a nice snapshot of mainly Poverty Row production in the early war years. I wish I could report that the transfer quality is commendable. Unfortunately that's far from the case as most do not stand up to projection on a large screen, but can only be enjoyed at all on a smaller (<30") display. All the films suffer from appreciable scratches and speckles, occasional jump cuts, and problems with contrast, blooming whites, and lack of sharpness. Fortunately two of the best films - Tom Brown's School Days and Let's Go Collegiate look the best of the lot. The other quality film, Jesse James at Bay, is very fuzzy. Hollywood Select Video has also felt it necessary to burn its name into the lower right corner of the films so that it's present throughout the running time. Admittedly it is quite faint and you don't really notice it after a while, but it should not be there at all (and from the company's point of view, particularly so when the transfers are no advertisement for them as quality efforts). The mono sound on all films delivers dialogue that is generally clear enough, but accompanied by noticeable hiss and crackle. Uncle Joe and Gambling Daughters fare worst in the latter regard. Supplements on the discs consist of episodes from Gale Storm's TV series - three from My Little Margie (1952-1955) and two from The Gale Storm Show (1956-1960, aka Oh, Susannah! in syndication).
The original half-hour Dragnet TV series began in 1951 and lasted for eight seasons. It starred Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday with Ben Alexander along as his partner for most of the series.
The black & white series was notable for Webb's "Just the facts, Ma'am" characterization with its staccato dialogue and snappy comebacks; the air of reality suggested by the semi-documentary approach; and the angle of not showing the actual crime being investigated but concentrating on the subsequent crime-solving procedures. In 1954, a feature length film based on the series was produced with Webb directing and was released by Warner Bros. While the TV series' distinctive dialogue delivery and its two chief characters were retained, several conscious decisions were made to distance the film from the TV series. Most apparent is the use of colour, but also quite notable is the showing of the crime being investigated. This sequence (that of a mob hit on one of its own) introduces the film and is strikingly and graphically (for the time) shot and really draws you into the story right away. Thereafter the film reverts to the TV mold with the focus on police procedure. The identification and tracking down of the murderers retains one's interest for the 90-minute running time, partly due to the entertaining presentation of that procedure, but also because of the film's others merits. Chief among them is its wonderful 1950s time-capsule nature - the cars, the filterless cigarettes (Chesterfield of course), the clothes, the cocktail bars, the button-down clean-cut nature of the police, etc. Also of benefit is the fine supporting cast with many familiar faces including Dub Taylor as the murder victim, a pre-Have Gun-Will Travel Richard Boone as the homicide chief, and a pre-Gunsmoke Dennis Weaver as another police captain. The film doesn't have a lot of direct action with the exception of a bar-room brawl that uses a lot of in-your-face close-ups. Those and a few other sequences reflect the idea that this may have been under consideration for a 3D presentation given the brief popularity of 3D at the time. The film has been released on DVD-R as part of Universal Vault Series in conjunction with Create Space via Amazon.com. It's presented full frame and the resulting image does look properly framed although it may have been masked for widescreen at some venues of the time. The image is sharp and the colour fidelity is quite impressive although it does waver on a couple of instances. Mild grain is evident. The mono sound delivers clear dialogue with virtually no hiss. There are no supplements. Certainly recommended for Dragnet fans; others may wish to try a rental first.
How many of you remember the gospel numbers sung by Mahalia Jackson on NBC TV back in the early 1960s? They often either opened or closed out the viewing day at a time when not every station broadcast 24/7. Now all 58 of them (each some three minutes or so in length) have been released on a two-disc DVD set by Infinity Entertainment Group under its Hollywood Select Video imprimatur as A Gospel Calling: Mahalia Jackson Sings.
Most segments were simply filmed with Jackson usually dressed in a choir cassock and standing in front of a microphone on a minimalist set. Occasionally, the presentations were more inventive with fades, double exposures, thoughtful camera movement, and spot lighting effectively employed. The highlight of each, however, was Mahalia Jackson's magnificent voice and her seemingly effortless ability to project the songs with power and unmatched depth of feeling and meaning. Jackson had an international reputation as gospel's first lady and "the greatest voice of the century". She received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1972 and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997. No restoration work has apparently been performed on the 58 segments as their DVD presentation is characterized by noticeable contrast issues, blooming whites, and edge haloes at times. Speckles and scratches are common. Opening titles and closing credits are present on most, but not all segments. Hollywood Select Video's name is not burned into the corner as it was in the above reviewed Gale Storm set. The mono sound does have some hiss and crackle at times, but the glory of Jackson's voice is undiminished. There is no supplementary content. You can watch these once to see how the segments are presented, but the replay potential of just listening to the audio is immense. Recommended.