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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Classic Reviews Round-Up #26 and New Announcements

The Abbott and Costello Show: Volumes 1 and 2 (1952-53)
(released on DVD by Shanachie on February 16th, 1999)

Program Rating: B+ (an episode average)
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/E

The Abbott and Costello Show: Volume 1The Abbott and Costello Show: Volume 2

Yes, you read that correctly; these were released on DVD in 1999, but the popularity of Abbott and Costello is such that these releases are worth bringing to your attention. The Abbott and Costello Show began in late 1952 on CBS and lasted two seasons resulting in 52 half-hour episodes. Interestingly, the pair also guest-hosted regularly on The Colgate Comedy Hour over at NBC during the same period. On their own show, the boys played themselves and were supported by a fine cast of regulars including Sid Fields as their apartment landlord (he also wrote a lot of the material as well as playing assorted other characters), Hillary Brooke as a statuesque blonde who was their neighbor across the hall, Gordon Jones as a cop whom the boys seemed to be forever running afoul of, as well as the likes of Joe Besser and Joe Kirk. The shows were only casually scripted with episodes often set up so as to allow the pair's classic routines to be reprised. Material often ended up getting made up on the fly as the situations warranted. The material from the first season is the best overall, but there are still many great moments in the second as well. Costello particularly seemed to enjoy himself and he's in very fine form throughout the first season.

Shanachie has issued all 52 shows on 13 DVDs, although the episodes are not presented in chronological order. All the discs are still available individually and I had the first two volumes available for review. The Abbott and Costello Show: Volume 1 contains Pots and Pans (Season 1, Episode 9 - entitled Duck Dinner on the disc), Hillary's Birthday (Season 1, Episode 20), The Tax Return (Season 2, Episode 43 - entitled Million Dollar Refund on the disc), and The Actor's Home (Season 1, Episode 24 - it includes a version of the famous "Who's on First" routine). The Abbott and Costello Show: Volume 2 contains The Birthday Party (Season 1, Episode 5 - entitled Lou's Birthday on the disc), Getting a Job (Season 1, Episode 18), Uncle Bozzo's Visit (Season 2, Episode 28), and Cheapskates (Season 2, Episode 33 - entitled Stolen Skates on the disc). The discs have been mastered from the original 35mm film and look it. The full frame images are quite nice, offering bright, fairly sharp images for the most part with modest amounts of film grain in evidence. There are the usual scratches and speckles and the odd splice to deal with, but nothing that detracts from one's enjoyment of the material. The packaging suggests stereo sound, but there's nothing beyond the original mono here and it's in decent shape with no hiss in evidence. There is no supplementary material. Given the vintage of the material, the transfer quality is unexpectedly high and if you're at all a fan of Abbott and Costello, these discs are heartily recommended.

Stalag 17: Special Collector's Edition

Stalag 17: Special Collector's Edition (1953)
(released on DVD by Paramount on March 21st, 2006)

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

Billy Wilder's mixture of drama and comedy set in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp received generally high acclaim upon its release in 1953. It was an adaptation of a popular Broadway play that would be the first of several such successful forays for the director. The story involves a prisoner named Sefton who is a successful hustler to the point where he maintains a locker of spoils resulting from his dealings with the German guards. It becomes apparent that there is an informer in the prison barracks, and suspicion falls increasingly on Sefton after he bets against the successful escape of a couple of other prisoners and is proven correct. Then a new prisoner named Dunbar arrives towards whom Sefton is openly hostile and when Dunbar is arrested by the Germans for sabotage, Sefton's fate is sealed as far as the other prisoners are concerned. But as Sefton suggests, there are two people who know he's innocent - himself and the real informer.

The role of Sefton was taken on by William Holden after Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas had first both been considered for it. Holden does a fine job with the part, even winning the Academy Award for Best Actor for his efforts, but in retrospect, the role's impact is slight and Holden's Oscar seems more like compensation for missing out on winning for Sunset Boulevard a couple of years previously (ironically, also directed by Wilder). The rest of the cast is an interesting one, utilizing some of the original Broadway players (Robert Strauss, in a rather unfunny portrayal of a Betty Grable-obsessed prisoner), one of Wilder's fellow directors (Otto Preminger, as the camp commandant - who must put on his boots in order to call Berlin), such established character players as Sig Rumann (as Sergeant Shultz, the model for TV's later Hogan's Heroes series), and newer players such as Peter Graves. The resulting film is an entertaining one still, but does have an at-times uneasy blend of comedy and seriousness. When it opened originally, it was a hit critically and at the box office.

This is Paramount's second kick at the can for Stalag 17. The new Special Collector's Edition is an improvement in all respects. The full screen transfer maintains the original aspect ratio and sports a very clean, sharp, bright, and well-detailed image. The restored mono sound is in nice shape - clear and free of hiss, although there's nothing particularly distinctive about it. A French mono track and English subtitles are provided. The supplements are quite informative. There's an audio commentary by actors Richard Erdman and Gil Stratton along with writer Donald Bevan that's a little heavy on anecdote rather than authoritative background, but is certainly entertaining although there is some empty air time. The new making-of documentary (Stalag 17: From Reality to Screen: about 20 minutes) utilizes the same individuals along with others such as Hollywood newsman Bob Thomas and Wilder biographer Ed Sikov. Another documentary (The Real Heroes of Stalag XVIIB, about 25 minutes) provides interviews of some actual prisoners of war at the real camp who provide some reality compared to the film's depiction of such a camp. Other supplements include a short photo gallery and previews for other DVD releases from Paramount. Highly recommended.

The Ten Commandments: 50th Anniversary Collection

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Ten Commandments: 50th Anniversary Collection (1956)
(released on DVD by Paramount on March 21st, 2006)

Film Rating (Sound Version, 1956): A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/A

Film Rating (Silent Version, 1923): B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/B

Speaking of kicks at the can, this is Paramount's third effort on The Ten Commandments. The first time, they gave us the film; then we got the film and a very nice set of documentaries and an audio commentary; now, we get all that plus the 1923 silent version of the film (both silent and sound versions were directed by Cecil B. DeMille), all on a three-disc set. For those who have the previous incarnation (see my review of it here), the new set contains the same fine transfer so everything comes down to the silent film. That version is considerably different compared to the sound one as it compresses the biblical story into about an hour's playing time then switches to a modern story that applies the Ten Commandments to a story of two brothers in San Francisco who love the same young woman.

The application to a modern tale is effective, but the original biblical story is less compelling in its abbreviated format. Still it's interesting to watch DeMille's initial conception of the idea and then see how the approach altered with the intervening years and the application of sound.

Paramount provides an exceptional transfer for a film now over 80 years old. The image is sharp and clear with minimal damage evident. Shadow detail is excellent. The stereo sound track shows off an impressive organ score to good advantage and the film's English title cards are also subtitled in French. Not content with merely included the film itself as a supplement, Paramount also includes another impressive audio commentary by Ten Commandments expert Katherine Orrison as well as 15 minutes worth of footage of the Exodus and the Parting of the Red Sea in an original hand-tinted colour process. That footage isn't in great shape, but it sure is nice to have it included. For those who don't have either of the previous DVD release, this new set is very highly recommended. Even for those who do, this new version is a worthy upgrade because of the fine silent version inclusion. If you're sitting on the fence, bear in mind too that a purchase such as this should provide more incentive for Paramount to issue other silent titles.

The Andy Griffith Show: Season Five

The Andy Griffith Show: The Complete Fifth Season (1964-65)
(released on DVD by Paramount on February 14th, 2006)

Program Rating: A (an episode average)
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/E

The recent passing of Don Knotts adds increased interest to the latest release of The Andy Griffith Show - Season Five. This was the last season that Knotts was a regular cast member on the show in his role as deputy Barney Fife, although he would make five guest return appearances as the character during the series' subsequent three seasons. Although The Andy Griffith Show would continue to be very popular after the fifth season, it seldom had quite the magic that it possessed with Don Knotts around. The increasing role of the irritating Goober Pyle character that began as Barney was being phased out provides little compensation.

There are 32 episodes in the fifth season and they're presented on five discs. Barney figures prominently in many of them, including: Barney's Physical - Andy not only tries to fatten Barney up, he tries to make him taller too so that Barney can meet the new height and weight standards for deputies; Barney's Bloodhound - an escaped criminal prompts Barney to resort to modern police methods by buying a bloodhound; Barney's Uniform - Barney is threatened by a worker at one of the local businesses, but he figures if he wears his uniform 24/7 he'll be safe; Goodbye Sheriff Taylor - a possible job offer for Andy in Raleigh leaves Barney in charge for a day, much to Mayberry's dismay; Barney Fife, Realtor - Barney's efforts as a budding house seller are sabotaged by Opie; The Lucky Letter - Barney worries so much over a chain letter that Andy persuaded him to throw away that his nerves may jeopardize his job with the annual pistol shooting qualifications coming up; If I Had a ¼ Million - Barney organizes a sting operation to nab a thief but catches an undercover FBI agent instead; and The Case of the Punch in the Nose - Barney uncovers an old assault case involving Floyd the Barber that never came to court and manages to get the whole town in an uproar. Of course, Barney has important roles in many of the other episodes as well. When an episode pops up that doesn't have him involved, however, there's always a feeling of something missing. Such episodes still have charm because Andy, Opie, and Aunt Bee are such comfortable characters, but they lack the unexpected silliness and the shear fun that the character of Barney always invested in the proceedings. Overall, season five provides superior entertainment with few less-than-average individual shows.

Paramount does its usual stout job on this latest set. The 32 episodes are presented full frame on five discs and all look very nice indeed, offering sharp, bright images with minimal speckling or other debris. The mono sound is clear, but there are no sub-titles nor any supplements. Episode summaries are included on the disc packaging, however. Recommended.

Midnight Cowboy: Collector's Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Midnight Cowboy: Collector's Edition (1969)
(released on DVD by Sony [MGM] on February 21st, 2006)

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

Here's an MGM two-disc edition that appears to have been conceived as a 35th anniversary release as the new supplementary materials were copyrighted in 2004. Presumably Sony's takeover of MGM delayed the originally planned release, but at least we now finally have it out, unlike the situation with the long-delayed Sergio Leone western re-releases.

Midnight Cowboy is a film for which much was hoped but not much expected, given the uncompromising subject matter, and the time of its release. (The Production Code had been broken by 1969, but the "anything goes" approach to film-making in Hollywood was not yet in full flight.) The story follows young Texan and would-be stud Joe Buck (Jon Voight) who sees servicing the women of New York as the way to the good life. Unfortunately, Joe is a bit of a soft touch and he becomes more used than user. He partners up with small-time hustler Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), but has no more success and gradually the two sink into a cruel existence that forges an unlikely bond between the pair.

As directed by John Schlesinger, the film is a brilliant portrayal of a stratum of life that most people want to ignore. The attention to detail is excellent and the recreation of Joe and Ratso's home is impressive. Voight and Hoffman both give memorable performances that resonate more than three decades later and give the film an honesty and reality that still rings true. Equally as important are several key supporting turns from the likes of John MacGiver, Sylvia Miles, Brenda Vaccaro, and Bob Balaban. The film's ending that looks at first so hopeful only to succumb to the inevitable stays long in the memory. Midnight Cowboy is definitely a film that time has not compromised.

Sony's 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, apparently mastered in high definition, is a clear improvement over the original MGM DVD release. The image sharpness and colour fidelity are better, although there remains substantial grain. Much of the latter, however, is inherent in the original photographic composition and use of interposed images in the flashback sequences. The film has always had a gritty look consistent with its subject and cinematographic approach and much of this comes through in this transfer fortunately. Viewers will note some minor instances of edge effects. Sony has provided a newly-created Dolby Digital 5.1 track that works reasonably well. Dialogue is properly centred while some nice ambient effects are achieved via the front stereo channels. There's little effective use of the surrounds. John Barry's fine score and Nilsson's rendition of "Everybody's Talkin'" fare well. Also provided are original English mono (also in good shape), French 5.1, and Spanish mono tracks, as well as English, French, and Spanish sub-titles. The supplements consist of an informative audio commentary by producer Jerome Hellman and a 50-minute documentary split up into three parts that consists of the likes of Voight, Hoffman, Miles, and Hellman reflecting on the making of the film, its subsequent impact, and the important influence of director John Schelinger. Most of those interviewed have insightful comments that make the pieces consistently interesting. Also included are a photo gallery and seven sepia-toned postcards. Recommended.

New Announcements

After the last column's spate of announcements, news this time around is rather modest. It comes from personal contacts, releasing company press releases and websites, The Digital Bits, Davis DVD, In the Balcony, DVD Times, DVD Active, TV Shows on DVD, The Home Theater Forum,, Masters of Cinema, and the ams newsgroup. Classic Coming Attractions Database has been updated accordingly.

Classic Media will release a two-disc set on September 5th that includes the complete, uncut 1954 Japanese film Gojira and the revised 1956 U.S. version, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Gojira includes 40 minutes that were edited from the U.S. version. The films will be remastered in high definition and released in their proper 1.37:1 ratio. Planned extras will include audio commentary.

Disney plans include a Dumbo: Big Top SE (1941) on June 13th, although there isn't much wrong with the existing DVD. On the other hand, the anticipated fall release of Song of the South has been cancelled by Disney's top management, although the decision may be revisited in the future.

Falcon Picture Group will offer the Hopalong Cassidy TV Collection #1, a three-disc set, on May 23rd. There are no details as to number of episodes or any extras, nor whether this is an authorized release, which might ensure better quality than Falcon's usual mediocre standard. (For those interested in the Hoppy TV material, there is an authorized release already available in the U.K.)

Fox will release Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid: Ultimate Collector's Edition (1969) on June 6th. This will be a two-disc set featuring a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Extras will include two commentaries (one with director George Roy Hill, lyricist Hal David, associate producer Robert Crawford, and cinematographer Conrad Hall; and the other with screenwriter William Goldman), various documentaries and featurettes from both 2005 and 1994, and trailers. Also coming on the same day is the 1942 film Thunder Birds, a flag waver starring Gene Tierney and Preston Foster. In the area of rumours is Violent Saturday (1955, with Victor Mature), which may appear later this year.

Charlie Chaplin's twelve two-reel Mutual comedies will be re-released by Image Entertainment on June 6th as The Chaplin Mutual Comedies, celebrating their 90th anniversary. This new release, restored from the finest surviving 35mm film elements, reflects newly discovered additions and improvements since the previous edition. Included are the shorts: The Immigrant, The Adventurer, The Cure, Easy Street, The Count, The Vagabound, The Fireman, Behind the Screen, One A.M., The Pawnshop, The Floorwalker, and The Rink. Extras include new orchestral scores composed and conducted by Carl Davis; The Gentleman Tramp 1975 documentary narrated by Walter Matthau, Jack Lemmon and Laurence Olivier; Chaplin's Goliath 1996 documentary on Chaplin "heavy" Eric Campbell; "The Mutual-Chaplin Specials," a reminiscence by Richard Patterson; and a stills gallery. The 1934 version of The Scarlet Letter (with Colleen Moore), derived from the 35mm original nitrate negative is also coming out on June 6th. Also on that date, Image will release two four-episode compilations of shows from the Combat! TV series. These provide samplings for those who may have missed or not been interested in the full season sets Image previously released. The titles are Combat!: Best of New Replacements and Combat!: Best of the Squad. The Weird Worlds Collection (June 6th) will include four science fiction films in a box set: The Phantom Planet (1961), First Spaceship on Venus (1960), Destination Moon (1950), and Project Moon Base (1953). A future Image release will be a Film Preservation Associates (David Shepard) effort on the D.W. Griffith film True Heart Susie (1919) which will be mastered from the original 35mm nitrate print at the BFI, with score by the Mont Alto Orchestra. It will likely be accompanied by Hoodoo Ann (1916), a film written by Griffith and directed under his supervision. The source material on it is a 35mm fine grain master made from the camera negative. There's no news yet on a specific release date. Image in the past has released the multi-disc sets issued by the National Film Preservation Foundation (Treasures from American Film Archives, More Treasures from American Film Archives) and presumably will handle a new set just announced by the NFPF. It will be a 3-disc DVD set as yet untitled, but presenting social issue films from the silent era and should appear in the fall of 2007. The press release indicates that the content will range from "the one-minute Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901) to The Godless Girl (1928), Cecil B. De Mille's feature-length exposé of juvenile reformatories, and will also include features, documentaries, serial episodes, public service announcements, newsreel segments, and cartoons addressing social issues from different political and ideological perspectives".

Lionsgate adds four more titles to its Zane Gray Collection on June 6th: Desert Gold, Drift Fence, Sunset Pass, and Wild Horse Mesa. All are believed to be the Paramount versions from the 1930s starring either Randolph Scott or Buster Crabbe. The films will be available separately or as a box set.

Paramount offers The Martin & Lewis Collection Volume 1 on June 13th. It's an eight-disc set containing the films: The Caddy, Jumping Jacks, Money from Home, My Friend Irma, My Friend Irma Goes West, Sailor Beware, Scared Stiff, and That's My Boy, all with newly remastered transfers. The "Irma" titles are presumably the same as the previously issued versions. Paramount will also apparently release Rawhide; Season One in June. The previously announced Perry Mason set (Perry Mason: Season One, Volume One) will be released on July 11th. It will be a 5-disc set containing the first season's first 19 episodes.

For May, VCI gives us some more westerns with the introduction of a new series whose films are drawn from the Kit Parker collection. In this case, all the films were originally Lippert productions. Legendary Outlaws - Volume 1 offers The Great Jesse James Raid (1953, with Willard Parker) and Renegade Girl (1946, with Ann Savage); Legendary Outlaws - Volume 2 will have The Return of Jesse James (1950, with John Ireland) and Gunfire (1950, with Don "Red" Barry); while Legendary Outlaws - Volume 3 will include The Dalton Gang (1949, with Don Barry) and I Shot Billy the Kid (1950, with Robert Lowery). Each volume will be available individually or as part of a box set on May 30th. On the same date, VCI will also release Superman: The Ultimate Max Fleischer Cartoon Collection, which will include the 17 original cartoons that appeared from 1941-1943 in theatres. Some digital restoration has been done on the cartoons, but it remains to be seen if this new set will improve on any of the existing versions already available. Finally, VCI will also offer Route 66: The Ultimate DVD Collection, but it's not what it sounds like. It's a three-disc set that includes none of the classic TV shows, but rather various documentaries publicizing and celebrating the highway.

On June 20th, Warner will debut its anticipated six-disc Clark Gable Signature Collection. It will include six films and a new documentary on Gable. The films will be: Mogambo (1953), Dancing Lady (1933), Boom Town (1940), San Francisco (1936). China Seas (1935), and Wife Vs. Secretary (1936). Most discs will include a selection of shorts, cartoons, and trailers and the Gable documentary (High, Wide and Handsome, narrated by Liam Neeson) will appear on the San Francisco disc. All the discs will also be available individually. Warner Bros.' Film Noir Collection Volume 3, expected on July 4th most likely, will apparently include: Border Incident (1949), His Kind of Woman (1951), Lady in the Lake (1947), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and The Racket (1951). The latter two are the best of the bunch with His Kind of Woman close behind. For my taste, Border Incident and Lady in the Lake are less interesting (despite the latter's point-of-view camera approach by Robert Montgomery). The Racket will include commentary by noir specialist Eddie Muller. Muller has also recorded commentaries for They Live by Night (1949, RKO, with Farley Granger) and Crime Wave (1954, WB, with Sterling Hayden), two future film noir DVD releases by Warners.

Well, once again, that's it for now. See you all again soon, and in the meantime, happy classic viewing to all.

Barrie Maxwell
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