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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #26 and New Announcements

In this edition of the column, I have a number of reviews for you as well as the usual new announcements of forthcoming classic releases. Forthcoming columns will include a new westerns round-up and some reviews of a number of discs containing more recent British television fare.


Reviews

There are reviews of 14 releases this time out, including material from Fox (Daddy Long Legs, Pin Up Girl, Fallen Angel, House on Telegraph Hill, No Way Out, David and Bathsheba), Grapevine Video (a double bill of Irish Luck and Up in the Air), Paramount (The Andy Griffith Show: Season Five, Stalag 17: Special Collector's Edition, The Ten Commandments: 50th Anniversary Collection), Shanachie (The Abbott and Costello Show: Volumes One and Two), Sony (Midnight Cowboy: Collector's Edition), and Universal (Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection). As usual the reviews are ordered generally by year of original release.


Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection

Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection
(1931-1937)
(released on DVD by Universal on April 4th, 2006)

Universal has just released three collections of films focusing on Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Carole Lombard. For my money, the one for the latter is by far the most interesting and consistently entertaining.

Lombard was born Jane Peters in 1908 and had her first part in 1921's A Perfect Crime, before beginning her film career in earnest in 1925 for Fox Pictures. Fox did not make effective use of her in general and she eventually worked with Mack Sennett in a number of two-reel comedies before signing a contract with Pathé. When that ended, she moved to Paramount in 1930 where her first picture, Safety in Numbers, began a lengthy association that would last until 1937. It firmly established the beautiful Lombard as one of the screen's top comedy actresses.

By then, at the height of her film popularity and soon to be married to Clark Gable in 1939, Lombard freelanced in films, working with David O. Selznick (Nothing Sacred, Made for Each Other), Warner Bros. (Fools for Scandal), RKO (In Name Only, Vigil in the Night, They Knew What They Wanted, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), and for United Artists where she made her last film, To Be or Not to Be. She died tragically in a plane crash while on a war bond tour in January 1942.

Even though two of Lombard's best remembered films from her Paramount period were made outside her home studio (Twentieth Century [1934, at Columbia] and My Man Godfrey [1936, at Universal]), the years 1930-1937 at Paramount were a particularly fruitful period and Universal's DVD release of Carole Lombard: The Glamour Collection gives us a superior sampling from it. Included are five Paramount films (Man of the World, We're Not Dressing, Hands Across the Table, The Princess Comes Across, and True Confession) and one Universal title (Love Before Breakfast). Three of the films have not been available on home video before (Man of the World, True Confession, Love Before Breakfast). All six titles range from good to very good, each providing fine entertainment value during their efficient running times of about 70 to 80 minutes.

Man of the World (1931) actually stars William Powell in a typically suave effort as a confidence man who falls for Lombard, the niece of one of Powell's victims. The film is clearly Powell's and he provides a masterly performance, but Lombard does quite well in an almost ingénue-like part. The second female lead, Wynne Gibson, is very effective as Powell's former love and current partner in crime. Guy Kibbee provides his standard enjoyable work as Lombard's uncle. The plot is fairly predictable, but the ending is quite satisfying.

Film Rating (Man of the World): B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/C/E


We're Not Dressing (1934) teams Lombard with Bing Crosby in an amiable musical comedy that finds the pair shipwrecked on a South Pacific island. Lombard plays the owner of the ill-fated yacht while Crosby is one of her crew members. Along for the ride are the likes of Leon Errol, Ray Milland, Burns and Allen, and Ethel Merman. The plot is an extended farce, but the cast knows its business and the results are very easy to take. None of the songs are really memorable, but all are pleasant and well enough balanced with various comedy elements to make the whole thing work well. Lombard seems very relaxed with her role, but comedically she's overshadowed to some degree by the efforts of pros like Errol and Burns and Allen.

Film Rating (We're Not Dressing): B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/D


Hands Across the Table (1935) is one of the three best films in the set. Lombard plays a manicurist in whom both Ralph Bellamy, as a wheelchair-bound tycoon, and Fred MacMurray (as a penniless heir), become interested. The film is one of those that helped solidify Lombard's reputation as a gifted comedienne, with nimble direction by Mitchell Leisen and a very witty script. As usual, Ralph Bellamy doesn't get the girl, this time losing out to MacMurray who offers a very likable performance in what would be the first of a number of films with Lombard.

Film Rating (Hands Across the Table): A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/E


Love Before Breakfast (1936) arose from a brief sojourn at Universal where Lombard also made My Man Godfrey at the same time. Lombard finds herself pursued relentlessly by Preston Foster who plays a high-powered businessman who won't take no for an answer. Cesar Romero plays Lombard's fiancé, the main obstacle to Foster's campaign to woo Lombard. The film begins very energetically and Lombard provides an outstanding performance that is both funny and sexy. Foster does excellent work in his role, but the character is somewhat obnoxious and one is never really rooting for him, despite the fact that his opposition in Cesar Romero is not particularly appealing either. The film's ending is somewhat disappointing, but at a brisk 70 minutes, the whole concoction is quite palatable.

Film Rating (Love Before Breakfast): B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/E


The Princess Comes Across (1936) was another winner for Carole Lombard, capitalizing perfectly on her blend of sophisticated beauty and comedy skill. This time she plays a gal from the Bronx who passes herself off as a Swedish princess taking a transatlantic liner from Europe to America where she expects to be come a movie star, à la Greta Garbo. She becomes involved with bandleader King Mantell (Fred MacMurray) who tries to help her when a blackmailer who threatens to reveal her real background is murdered. The blend of comedy and mystery that ensues is delightful entertainment with Lombard and MacMurray complementing each other very well and supported by a classic roster of supporting players (Douglas Dumbrille, Alison Skipworth, William Frawley, Porter Hall, Sig Rumann, Mischa Auer, and George Barbier).

Film Rating (The Princess Comes Across): A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/E


True Confession (1937) once again united Lombard and MacMurray (their fourth film together) in an under-rated comedy that is one of the DVD set's unexpected delights. The two stars are married with Lombard playing a would-be writer who is given to outrageous lies and MacMurray a struggling lawyer whose ethics keep the pair struggling financially. When one of Lombard's efforts to earn more money gets her suspected of committing murder, circumstances dictate that pleading guilty and having her husband defend her may be beneficial financially in the long run. Lombard and MacMurray were by then very comfortable working with each other and the satirical situation their characters found themselves in opened up numerous comedy opportunities that the pair capitalized on very successfully. The direction by Wesley Ruggles keeps the outrageous story from overpowering things and allows Lombard's work to really stand out. John Barrymore contributes a memorable co-starring performance and familiar faces such as Una Merkel, Porter Hall, and Edgar Kennedy provide welcome support.

Film Rating (True Confession): A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/E


Universal has packaged the six films on two double-sided discs, a standard Universal practice that has caused problems in the past with some defective discs that freeze up at times. Unfortunately, I have to report that the situation is not a thing of the past, as one of the films in my review copy (Love Before Breakfast) froze at about the 11-minute mark. This occurred repeatedly on both Sony and Pioneer players, although not on my DVD-ROM player. That aside, the full-frame transfers are generally of a high standard, offering bright, sharp images with appropriate levels of grain that result in a nice film-like viewing experience. Man of the World is, predictably, somewhat weaker than the others with a softer and grainier image, but is still quite acceptable given the film's1931 vintage. It also has the most noticeably noisy sound track in terms of background hiss and crackle. Otherwise the mono tracks are clear and characterized by no or minimal such distractions. All films are also provided with English, French, and Spanish subtitles. The only bonus material is a trailer for We're Not Dressing. The set is easily recommended, but would be highly so were it not for the continuing freeze-up issues with such releases. Universal needs to address this matter with some urgency and transparency if it intends to continue issuing its classic releases in this fashion. The current situation has gone on far too long without proper redress for consumers.


Irish Luck/Up in the Air

Irish Luck/Up in the Air (1939/1940)
(released on DVD by Grapevine Video in March 2006)

Frankie Darro and Mantan Moreland co-starred in a series of 8 generally pleasing whodunits for Monogram during the 1939-1941 period. Irish Luck was the first one followed by Chasing Trouble, Laughing at Danger, On the Spot, Up in the Air (all 1940) and The Gang's All Here, Let's Go Collegiate, You're Out of Luck (all 1941). The Darro and Moreland characters are different in each film, with Darro variously portraying a bellhop, a page boy, a truck driver, a collegiate student, etc. all called Frankie, while Moreland plays his friend Jeff. Darro and Moreland work very comfortably together and they make virtually all the films pleasant diversions despite the generally familiar plot lines and their sometimes cursory resolutions.

In Irish Luck, Darro is a bellhop who fancies himself an amateur detective (in fact, Amateur Detective was the film's working title). He gets mixed up in a case of stolen bonds and murder at the hotel where he works, much to the continuing exasperation of police detective Steve Lanahan (Dick Purcell). With Jeff's help, Frankie solves the case (but not without Jeff twice ending up either on the roof or a ledge of the hotel feigning jumping to attract attention and so get the police and fire department to come to help Frankie out of a jam).

Film Rating (Irish Luck): B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B-/E


In Up in the Air, Frankie is a page boy at a Hollywood radio station where he and his friend Jeff aspire to be an on-air comedy duo. Once again, there's a murder to contend with when temperamental singer Rita Wilson (Lorna Gray) is shot dead while rehearsing. There are plenty of potential suspects with reasons to see Rita dead and Frankie's in the midst of trying to determine who the culprit is while also trying to promote the station's receptionist (Marjorie Reynolds) as a new singer. Irish Luck and Up in the Air provide a fine introduction to the Darro/Moreland series of films if you're not familiar with them. Both are amiable time passers clocking in at under an hour each and each also provides a good opportunity to see a number of familiar minor character actors in action (Tristam Coffin, Carleton Young, Dennis Moore, James Flavin, etc.).

Grapevine Video's DVD presentation is a mixed bag. Irish Luck looks very good indeed. It offers a particularly bright and fairly sharp image that's one of the better renderings that I've seen of a Monogram film of this vintage. There are numerous speckles and some scratches, but they never distract one from the film. The mono sound is acceptable; dialogue is clearly understandable despite some minor background hiss. On the other hand, Up in the Air is merely workable. The image is rather dark and somewhat soft-looking at times. Shadow detail is poor. The mono sound suffers from more noticeable hiss and crackle than does Irish Luck. There are no supplements. Potential buyers should note that the version of Irish Luck reviewed here clocks in at 51 minutes - apparently six or seven minutes shy of its original running time, likely reflecting the fact that the print used as source material lacks the original Monogram Pictures Corporation credit (it's been replaced by something called International Film Renters Ltd.) and was probably a version trimmed to fit into a one-hour slot for television. Still, the opportunity to get both films together for $10, as available from grapevinevideo.com, and the general good will generated by the films makes this an offering worth recommending.


Pin Up Girl (1944)
Daddy Long Legs (1955)
(released on DVD by Fox on February 21st, 2006)

Pin Up GirlDaddy Long Legs

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Pin Up Girl and Daddy Long Legs are two of the films in the first wave of Fox's new Marquee Musicals Collection. The third one, Weekend in Havana, was reviewed in a previous edition of this column.

The appearance of Pin Up Girl is the first real indication that Fox hasn't forgotten about Betty Grable. Her fans will be further delighted when five of her films appear in June from Fox. That's just as well since if one had to go by Pin Up Girl alone, one would be wondering what all the fuss is about. The Technicolor film looks great and so does Grable, but the rest is completely forgettable - no songs of any memorability whatsoever and a plot that's thin even for a musical. Some effort obviously went into the production numbers and it's nice to have the likes of Martha Raye, Joe E. Brown, and Eugene Pallette, but all that's not enough to generate sufficient good will to warrant a recommendation. Fox's presentation is very good. The Technicolor image is bright and colourful with little source material damage in evidence. It's also quite sharp except for a few brief sequences. The mono sound is in good shape, and is supplemented by an English stereo track (which sounds little different from the mono one) and English and Spanish subtitling. Richard Schickel provides an audio commentary that's more interesting than the film and a deleted musical number, still photo gallery, theatrical trailer, and some lobby card reproductions are included.

Film Rating (Pin Up Girl): C-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B+


Daddy Long Legs gives us some later Fred Astaire that's still plenty good enough. Astaire's contract with MGM had just expired and he was considering retirement for a second time when Fox came knocking with an offer to do a musical version of the 1912 novel called "Daddy Long Legs". The story involves a wealthy American businessman (Fred Astaire) who sponsors a orphan girl's education, with the pair later falling in love. The story was changed somewhat to account for the French background of Leslie Caron as the young French woman. Although he was 55 at the time, Astaire was still the classiest and most graceful of all American dancers and the role seems made for him. Despite the difference in age, he and Caron complement each other well in their dances even though Caron always looked a little more at home dancing with Gene Kelly. The film is known for its dream sequences some of which go on too long, but its new ballad by Johnny Mercer, "Something's Gotta Give", more than makes up for that. The film's composition in 2.55:1 CinemaScope is striking. Fox delivers an excellent anamorphic transfer with exquisite colour and a very sharp, clean, and well-detailed image. The 4.0 Dolby track is very rich and clear sounding. Spanish and French mono tracks as well as English and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The supplements include a lively audio commentary by Ava Astaire McKenzie and film historian/author Ken Barnes, supplemented by archival comments from songwriter Johnny Mercer. Also included are some Fox Movietone newsreel footage of the film's premieres, a still photo gallery, two theatrical trailers, and some collectible lobby cards. Recommended.

Film Rating (Daddy Long Legs): B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/B+



Fallen Angel (1945)
No Way Out (1950)
House on Telegraph Hill (1951)
(released on DVD by Fox on March 7th, 2006)

Fallen AngelNo Way OutHouse on Telegraph Hill

Fox's latest wave of film noir titles continues the high standard that the studio has set with the series. It doesn't really matter that one of the titles (No Way Out) isn't really film noir, all are entertaining films that have been attractively packaged and nicely supplemented by the studio on DVD.

Produced and directed by Otto Preminger as the follow-up film to his successful Laura, Fallen Angel is a potent combination of deceit and murder that finds conman Dana Andrews in a small coastal town where he sees an opportunity to cash in on a family fortune by romancing June Mills (Alice Faye, in a role that is out of character for the long-time musical star). Meanwhile, waitress Linda Darnell sees an opportunity herself in Andrews as her ticket out of town. That's when murder complicates things for everyone. The lighting, music, and particularly the presence of Dana Andrews (a quintessential noir player) all beg comparison with Laura and while the results fall short, it's not by much. Fallen Angel is often under-appreciated, but not by those who are really beguiled by the noir style. The triangle between the Andrews, Darnell, and Faye characters is full of ambiguity and Preminger accentuates that through skillful intercutting among the characters. All three principals but particularly Andrews and Darnell are very effective. Fine support comes from Charles Bickford as a former New York detective and the likes of Bruce Cabot and John Carradine.

Film Rating (Fallen Angel): A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/B+


No Way Out, despite Eddie Muller's enthusiastic audio commentary, has never struck me as fitting the film noir tag at all comfortably. The film is an intense drama of racial hatred that is uncompromising in its presentation. Sidney Poitier portrays a new black intern in the criminal ward at a hospital. Two white brothers who have been apprehended are placed in his care, but one dies while being administered to by him. The other brother, a virulent racist played by Richard Widmark, blames Poitier and vows to destroy him. Fox was known for its films focusing on social issues at the time, but No Way Out was a particularly biting condemnation of the evils of racism. The film was very strongly acted by both Poitier and Widmark, with the latter delivering a performance that still startles for its intensity and unfortunate honesty even today. Strong writing and direction were provided by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, at the time one of Fox's major behind-the-camera talents. The film is starkly lit and at times reflects noir's shadowy world, but certainty rather than ambiguity drives its characters so that the sensibility of a noir film is never really invoked.

Film Rating (No Way Out): A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/B+


In House on Telegraph Hill, we are on safer noir ground. The story follows Victoria Kowelska (Valentina Cortesa) who takes her friend's identity when she dies in a World War II concentration camp. She travels to America to follow up on her friend's young son who had ended up living with his aunt in San Francisco. In the intervening time, the aunt has died effectively leaving her estate to Victoria because of the identity she has assumed. Victoria falls in love with the estate's trustee, Alan Spender (Richard Basehart), but she soon begins to suspect that Alan along with the boy's governess Margaret (Fay Baker) plan to kill her to gain control of the estate. The film is atmospheric (with inspiration from gothic films like The Spiral Staircase and Gaslight), has an interesting premise, and is well acted, but it's all a little predictable (partly due to that gothic inspiration) and does not have quite the same viewing repeatability of the others in the current noir wave. The film's noir pedigree stems from its photography, Victoria's air of fatalism, and the elements of isolation and entrapment that the old house increasingly embodies. Among the cast, Basehart and Baker stand out although Basehart telegraphs (no pun intended) his reactions somewhat.

Film Rating (In House on Telegraph Hill): B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B+


As usual, Fox has done well by all three films in terms of their transfer to DVD. The images are all sharp, nicely detailed, and present their dramatic lighting effectively. Generally, any speckling is modest as is noticeable grain. There is somewhat less uniformity in the sharpness of the image for House on Telegraph Hill. The mono sound on all three films is clear and clean. Each also offers a stereo track and English and Spanish sub-titles. House on Telegraph Hill also has a Spanish mono track. Film noir historian Eddie Muller provides his normal entertaining and fact-filled audio commentary on each film. That for Fallen Angel also benefits from comments by Dana Andrews' daughter Susan Andrews. Each film also offers various photo galleries and its theatrical trailer. No Way Out includes some Fox Movietone newsreel footage. All three discs are recommended.

David and Bathsheba

David and Bathsheba (1951)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on January 31st, 2006)

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/C-


I'm not sure one would expect to see Gregory Peck playing King David, but that's what we get in David and Bathsheba, an unexpectedly intelligent biblical film that eschews epic for a more intimate story. It relates the story of David's love for the beautiful Bathsheba, the wife of another man, Uriah (Kieron Moore), whom David sends on a hopeless mission in order to take Bathsheba (Susan Hayward) for himself after she becomes pregnant with David's child. It's just the first step in a progression that threatens to destroy all that David has built up in becoming Israel's king.

As suggested, the film is more of a character study than one might anticipate. There are some perfunctory battle scenes, including an unconvincing recreation of the David and Goliath confrontation, but it is the work of Peck and Hayward individually as well as their interactions that carry the day. Peck is particularly effective in the climactic sequences where he seeks God's forgiveness. Hayward is an actress who seems to have been largely forgotten in the half-century since her best work. Sometimes given to excessive histrionics in her acting, she manages a subdued effort in turning in a reasonably persuasive performance here. Also in the cast are Raymond Massey as the prophet Nathan (a stereotypical role for him) and James Robertson Justice as David's aide. The film is a pre-CinemaScope effort from Fox, but its character-driven approach benefits from the pre-widescreen Academy ratio. Fox reliable Henry King directs the story briskly for the most part, although the conclusion feels somewhat drawn out.

Fox's full-frame presentation of the Technicolor film is quite pleasing. The colours look accurate although somewhat subdued, but that fits the film's mood. The image is generally sharp and well-detailed with no hint of edge effects. There is some minor wear and occasional speckles. The mono sound is clear and free from hiss and does a fully satisfactory job. English stereo and Spanish and French mono tracks are also provided as are English and Spanish subtitles. The supplements include a colour and black and white trailer as well as a TV spot, but more intriguing is a vintage making-of featurette (Once in 3000 Years) that follows Gregory Peck as he is introduced to the film project and begins to see it all come together. Also appearing are Susan Hayward, Henry King and writer Philip Dunne. Unfortunately only three minutes of it seem to have survived as the featurette terminates abruptly in the middle of Peck discussing the script with Dunne. Still, it was thoughtful of Fox to include what does exist. Recommended.


On to Part Two

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