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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Classic Reviews Round-Up #2 (continued)

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on April 6th, 2004)

Long an object of desire for classic DVD enthusiasts in general and Judy Garland devotees in particular, Meet Me in St. Louis has finally arrived in a gorgeous two-disc package. The film was a production of MGM's Arthur Freed unit and the one that really kicked the period of the classic MGM musical into high gear. The plot was based on twelve short stories by Sally Benson that appeared in "The New Yorker" magazine under the collective title "5135 Kensington". They were vignettes of her early family life growing up in St. Louis at the start of the 20th century before the time of that city's World Fair and MGM felt they had potential for a musical film. How right MGM was!

Meet Me in St. Louis

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The film is of course a showcase for the singing talents of Judy Garland. For many, her efforts on "The Trolley Song" represent the film's highlight, but I prefer "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas", one of the Christmas season's most wonderful and enduring popular songs. Garland's rendition is sublime. Garland was at first reluctant to play the part of the teenaged daughter, Esther Smith, preferring not to return to a juvenile role after several more adult ones. Eventually she was persuaded by studio boss Louis B. Mayer and director Vincente Minnelli, and she later came to view the part as one of her favourites. The rest of the cast is a delight as well, with young Margaret O'Brien standing out as Garland's little sister, Tootie. (She won a juvenile best Oscar for her efforts.) The parents, Anna and Alonzo Smith, are warmly portrayed by Leon Ames and Mary Astor, with Harry Davenport turning in his usual reliable performance as Grandpa. The film is briskly directed by Minnelli and showcases Garland with great care and affection, reflecting the growing relationship between the two that would soon lead to their marriage (and eventually daughter Liza Minnelli). Using Technicolor to advantage, the production is a sumptuous-looking spectacle that offers the highest level of entertainment.

Warner Bros. has made its two-disc 60th anniversary edition of Meet Me in St. Louis the centrepiece of its April DVD focus on Judy Garland. The Ultra-Resolution process that rendered such fine transfers of Singin' in the Rain and The Adventures of Robin Hood has been employed and the results are gorgeous. The Technicolor images are so crisp and colourful, they just jump off the screen. Flesh tones are right on and there are no edge effects. Meet Me in St. Louis's transfer (correctly presented full frame) does not quite eclipse either of the previously mentioned films, however, because it's just a tad too dark at times. Still, that's a minor quibble and doesn't prevent me from giving Warners very high marks for its efforts. The original mono sound and a new Dolby Digital 5.0 mix are offered and you won't go wrong with either. The original is in great shape with no evidence of age-related hiss, while the new one sounds very natural. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Supplements on the first disc include an introduction by Liza Minnelli and an audio commentary featuring mainly Garland biographer John Fricke along with occasional comments by Margaret O'Brien, composer Hugh Martin, screenwriter Irving Brecher, and Barbara Freed-Saltzman (daughter of producer Arthur Freed). There's also a gallery of eight trailers for various Vincente Minnelli films (including a reissue trailer for Meet Me in St. Louis). On the second disc, we get a very good half-hour making-of documentary hosted by Roddy McDowall (originally made for the laserdisc box set), an informative 50-minute MGM studio profile narrated by Dick Cavett (Hollywood: The Dream Factory), the pilot episode of the 1966 Meet Me in St. Louis TV series, the Vitaphone short Bubbles with an early Garland performance as one of the Gumm sisters, a vintage Soundie of "Skip to My Lou" featuring songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, the deleted song "Boys and Girls Like You and Me", a stills gallery, and the 1946 Lux Radio Theater broadcast adaptation. It all adds up to a typically-thorough, high-quality, Warner two-disc edition. Very highly recommended.

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on February 3rd, 2004)

The 1935 production of Mutiny on the Bounty was one of many given the typically classy MGM treatment under the guidance of producer Irving Thalberg. Extensive research was undertaken to ensure the film's accuracy in look and in the general framework of the mutineers' actions. Two replicas of the original H.M.S. Bounty were constructed, one of which was actually sailed to Tahiti for use there and the other to Santa Catalina Island where it was used for interiors. Two expeditionary trips to the South Seas were made in order to shoot background material. The resulting film is still the definitive "Bounty" version despite expensive remakes featuring Marlon Brando in 1962 and Mel Gibson in 1984.

Mutiny on the Bounty

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Robert Montgomery, Wallace Beery, and Myrna Loy were initially envisaged as the film's leads, but saner heads prevailed with the eventual selection of Clark Gable as Mr. Christian and Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh. The latter duo provides one of those enduring images of casting from Hollywood's Golden Age. Laughton is the embodiment of the heartless Captain Bligh, however inaccurate the presentation of the real character may be, while Gable gives a very adroit performance mixing strength with compassion, tinged with occasional hints of his trademark humour. Franchot Tone offers a solid interpretation of midshipman Byam and among the supporting cast are such reliables as Donald Crisp, Henry Stephenson, Dudley Digges, Herbert Mundin, Spring Byington, and Ian Wolfe. The scenes in Tahiti are sensitively handled (without becoming cloying) by director Frank Lloyd, with Movita and Mamo providing nice portrayals of two island women. The film offers a fine blend of action, adventure, exotic locales, and romance, and eventually was awarded the Best Picture Oscar for the year against strong opposition that included Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, Les Miserables, Ruggles of Red Gap, and Top Hat.

Warners' efforts on the DVD don't translate into quite the same level of excellence that some of their classics exhibit. That's not to say that Mutiny on the Bounty doesn't look substantially better than any previous video incarnation. It does, including the remastered laserdisc effort. Contrast particularly is a characteristic in which the DVD is markedly better than previous efforts I've viewed. Much of the correctly-presented full frame image looks very nice indeed - crisp with deep blacks and good detail, but there are sequences that look a little ragged with scratches and speckling evident and substantial grain from time to time. Inevitably, it is generally the stock footage sequences that are most at fault in this respect. The film's mono sound track (English and French) betrays some slight hiss, but otherwise provides a solid audio experience. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Supplements include the vintage documentary Pitcairn Island Today which gives a feeling for the life of Christian and his supporters' descendants, a newsreel for the 1935 Academy Awards, and trailers for the film and the 1962 remake. Highly recommended.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on March 30th, 2004)

Warners' new release of a couple of filmed versions of Neil Simon plays (The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Sunshine Boys) reminded me of Paramount's release of four filmizations of Neil Simon plays last fall. Those all had fine transfers although the actual films offered little to write home about. Happily, Warners' offerings duplicate Paramount's transfer efforts, but have better films to show off as well. The Prisoner of Second Avenue is the very well-known Neil Simon play in which advertising executive Mel Edison and his wife Edna are suffering through a New York heat wave when everything goes wrong. Mel loses his job, the couple's apartment is robbed, and Mel suffers a mental breakdown. Meanwhile, Edna becomes increasingly frustrated as she tries to deal with Mel while keeping the family afloat by going back to work herself.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue

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This is a typical bitter-sweet Simon play with the emphasis here on bitter. The subject matter is quite relevant to present-day concerns and accurately zeroes in on how easy it is for a comfortable life to go quickly awry. Simon is right on in the touches of humour that he identifies in even the gravest of circumstances, but the overall tone is one of mixed bitterness and melancholy. Jack Lemmon and Anne Bancroft are both very well cast as Mel and Edna, with Bancroft's efforts overshadowing those of Lemmon in my opinion. Perhaps it's just me, but I often find Lemmon's characterizations of characters such as Mel Edison a little too abrasive and unsubtle, so that I lose some of the sympathy that they are meant to have. Look for Murray Abraham and Sylvester Stallone in small early roles (as a taxi driver and alleged pickpocket respectively). Despite my difficulties with Jack Lemmon, this is sharply-written and well-performed entertainment that has good repeat-viewing potential.

The film is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks excellent. Colours are bright and accurate; blacks are deep and pure; and shadow detail is very fine. There is little evidence of dirt and debris, and edge effects are non-existent. The Dolby Digital mono sound is clear and free of age-related hiss or distortion, so that dialogue is always easy to understand. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Supplements include a short but interesting vintage making-of featurette, a less than scintillating segment of the "Dinah!" show featuring Anne Bancroft as Dinah Shore's guest along with a gag reel from the film, and the film's theatrical trailer. Recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
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