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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Some Recent British Items on DVD, a Classic Review, and New Announcements

In this edition of the column, I've got some thoughts on seven releases providing an interesting range of more recent British film and TV fare, a review of Fox's Laurel and Hardy Collection: Volume One, and the usual summary of new classic announcements.


British TV and Film Fare

I'm departing a little from my usual area and format of coverage to talk about several recent DVD releases of British productions now available on DVD. Much of it is British TV material, for which I have a general fondness. The majority of this sort of fare is released by BBC Video, A&E, and Acorn Media, although companies such as Anchor Bay and Blue Underground are also active in this regard. Under consideration are the following: The Hanging Gale and A Perfect Spy (both Acorn Media); Terry Jones' Personal Best and The Best of Not the 9 O'Clock News (both A&E); and The Firm and Made in Britain (both Blue Underground). For good measure, I'll also look at The Blitz: London's Longest Night from PBS Home Video via Paramount.

Drama has been a major staple of the BBC for many years and the high quality of the product has been well recognized in North America - initially through its exposure on public broadcast stations in both the U.S. and Canada, and more recently on A&E and BBC cable stations focused directly at the North American market. Such programming runs the gamut from pre- and early 20th century period pieces to a wide range of more contemporary spy tales and mystery series (including Foyle's War which I recently reviewed here) and dramatizations of rural and urban lives both real and fictional (the various All Creatures Great and Small series and the Francis Urquhart Trilogy, for example).

Two of the most acclaimed TV spy series are John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its sequel Smiley's People, both made in the 1979-1982 period and starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley. The series were released on DVD by Acorn Media and for a time were only available through Acorn's website. (Now, new releases from Acorn have recently become widely available at most DVD retailers.) For those who enjoyed the excellence of these series, Acorn has now released on DVD the BBC's 1987 filming of A Perfect Spy, another immensely satisfying John Le Carré novel. The main character this time is Magnus Pym, whose life is traced from a childhood during which he was raised by his con man father Rick through young adulthood when he makes a contact with a poor writer on the continent to eventual maturity as a British spy compromised by that same contact. Spread over seven episodes of about 55 minutes each, the script, written by Arthur Hopcraft (who had also done the two earlier Smiley series), is excellent, presenting Le Carré's somewhat convoluted tale in a more straight-forward narrative. It builds suspense slowly through the first few episodes, but will reward those with patience and appreciation for reality and detail. Pym is portrayed by three different actors as he ages, with Peter Egan shining as the adult Pym. In the early going, Ray McAnally as Rick overshadows everyone else on the screen. As Le Carré aficionados will know, this is no James Bond type of spy story, but a much more realistic presentation of the world of espionage, with great attention to character development and portraying a real-world understanding of what it means to be a spy. Acorn Media's DVD presentation spreads the seven episodes over three discs. The images are full frame as originally shot and are in general satisfactory looking. Colours are subdued though accurate-looking, but much of the image is on the dark side, and night-time scenes are often rather murky. The stereo sound is also satisfactory, with dialogue generally clean although some lines were difficult to understand due more to the British accents than any deficiency of the sound track. There are no sub-titles and the only supplements are text-based biographies and filmographies. Though the overall presentation is workmanlike at best, the excellence of the series is such that this gets an easy recommendation. Those with limited attention spans should consider looking elsewhere, however.

A Perfect SpyThe Hanging Gale

The Hanging Gale is a 1995 production of BBC Northern Ireland that dramatizes the Great Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century. Presented in four approximately 50-minute episodes, it stars British actors and brothers Joe, Mark, Paul, and Stephen McGann as the four sons of the Phelan family in Donegal in 1846. The injustices of a landholding system that sees the Irish as tenants on land controlled by absentee English landlords combined with the onset of the potato blight are devastating the local community, and the four sons (two farmers, one a schoolteacher, and the other a priest) are torn between non-violent protest and armed revolt. The face of their enemy is Captain Townsend, a new agent for the English landlord who arrives after his predecessor is murdered. This is a fascinating, fictionalized dramatization of the Famine times that is characterized by fine acting, some evocative location work in Donegal, and an engrossing screenplay that never sugarcoats the difficulties of the times nor finds a happy ending necessary. The four McGann brothers all possess great charisma and do a fine ensemble job (for the series they departed from their usual practice of not working all together). Michael Kitchen (a familiar face to veteran British TV watchers - he plays Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle of Foyle's War, for example) plays Captain Townsend with just the right blend of authority and humanity. Memorable too are the efforts of Fiona Victory as the mistress of the Phelan farm and Tina Kellegher as her sister who works in Townsend's house so that she can spy on him. Acorn Media's presentation is on two discs, each full frame as originally shot and offering realistic colour well balanced with the grayness of the frequently cloudy or rainy weather conditions. The image is quite sharp and delivers good detail. The stereo sound is in good shape, with dialogue generally clear. There are no sub-titles. The supplements (all on the first disc) comprise text-based production notes, a photo gallery, and incomplete cast filmographies. Recommended.

The FirmMade in Britain

A different kind of drama comes from Blue Underground in its presentation of two of director Alan Clarke's bleak portraits of modern Britain. The Firm (1988) introduces us to Bex Bissell (impressively played by Gary Oldman), a middle-class family man who is the leader of a group of soccer hooligans. His gang along with two rival ones spend the film's 70-minute running time trashing each other's property or beating the hell out of each other. The nihilistic game of action and reprisal has long since transcended the original raison d'etre, which supposedly was support for each other's soccer team. I suspect it's all quite realistic, but it's a sad indictment of the life of some modern British middle-class men. An even more uncompromising effort is Made in Britain (1982), in which Tim Roth gives a stand-out performance as Trevor, a teenage skinhead whose acts of racism, vandalism, and violence place him continually at odds with the British juvenile justice system. Both films have a certain fascination that's perhaps just a case of voyeurism reflecting a smug satisfaction that our lives are untouched by people like Bex or Trevor. In the film's publicity materials, it's suggested that if you don't make films about these types of people, does that mean they don't exist. Of course, that's certainly not the case, but on the other hand, if you do make films about these types of people, does that mean we have to watch them? Well, fortunately we have a choice. The fact that such people exist doesn't mean we effectively have to invite them, along with their senseless violence and limited vocabularies, into our lives for an hour or so each by way of these films. If however, you're an Alan Clarke fan, Blue Underground makes it possible for you to do so. It has given both films a very respectful DVD treatment with full frame transfers sporting reasonably clear images, though there are varying amounts of grain in evidence. The mono sound tracks are clear enough in themselves, but some of the British accents make parts of the dialogue hard to make out. English subtitles are also provided. The Firm disc also sports a photo gallery and the Alan Sharpe short, Elephant. The latter is accompanied by audio commentary by Danny Boyle and interviews with Gary Oldman, David Hare, and Molly Clarke. Made in Britain includes two audio commentaries (one with Tim Roth and the other with writer David Leland and producer Margaret Matheson), a poster and still gallery, and a short archival interview with Tim Roth.

British comedy has had many incarnations over the past half century ranging from the Ealing comedies to the many Carry-On films, the likes of the Goon Show and Tony Hancock on radio, to numerous comedy shows on television (from items like The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Rising Damp to Keeping Up Appearances, As Time Goes By, and The Office). Television sketch comedy from the likes of Morecombe and Wise, Benny Hill, and the Two Ronnies became supplanted by the originality of Monty Python's Flying Circus in the 1970s and its successor, Not the 9 O'clock News, in the 1980s.

Monty Python's Flying Circus: The Best of Terry JonesNot the 9 O'clock News

The complete run of the Monty Python shows has long been available on DVD, but now some of the material has been repackaged by A&E (distributed by New Video) in six best-of discs, each hosted by one of the Python gang, that are easy recommendations. Terry Jones' Personal Best is one example. Thirty years after the fact, Terry Jones still can't decide what to do with his life so he hosts this disc of his choice of the best Python sketches and manages to suggest that he deserves credit for pretty much all of the series. At least, that's his approach to hosting; goodness knows how the others have approached the same task on their discs. The Jones disc includes 11 sketches including the likes of "The Funniest Joke in the World", "Bicycle Repair Man", and "The Olympic Hide-and Seek Final". Extras on the disc include several additional sketches billed as , a trivia game, and a Jones biography. Interestingly, the disc packaging jokingly states that "the imperfections of the original analog Monty Python shows have been analyzed and painstakingly reproduced as digital imperfections". That's a pretty apt description of how in fact the disc content looks - quite watchable, but certainly not characterized by any significant restoration. Still, it's the content that counts and if you've somehow managed to miss seeing the Monty Python shows, this disc and the others in the series are good introductions.

Not the 9 O'clock News is making its Region 1 DVD debut courtesy of A&E. The series first appeared on the BBC in Britain in 1979 and lasted for four series totaling 27 episodes. A worthy successor to Monty Python's Flying Circus, the series featured much of the same frenetic pacing with one skit feeding quickly into another but characterized by much more political incorrectness both in subject matter and dialogue. Rowan Atkinson, Griff Rhys Jones, Mel Smith, and Pamela Stephenson were the featured players and all benefited greatly from the series, although Rowan Atkinson has obviously become the most well-known, particularly for his Mr. Bean character. Although some awareness of the British scene of the early 1980s is helpful in getting the most from the material, the bulk of it is hilarious and anyone who enjoys Monty Python should not be disappointed. A&E's two-disc release, The Best of Not the 9 O'clock News, gives us eight of the series' 27 episodes all presented full frame as originally broadcast. For the most part, the image quality is quite satisfactory but at times there are issues of softness and excessive grain. The stereo sound is in good shape. The only supplement is a trailer for A&E's release on DVD of the complete run of all the Mr. Bean sketches. Recommended.

Not the 9 O'clock News

And now for something completely different. The Blitz: London's Longest Night dramatizes one of the worst nights of bombing that the city of London experienced at the hands of the Luftwaffe during World War II. The night in question - December 29, 1940 - is brought terrifying alive through new dramatizations of the events that portray some of the actual people who experienced the night firsthand and the use of some archival footage. Some 65 years later, those same people add their memories of and feelings about the night to the program, providing poignant perspective to what we see on the screen. The program, both produced and directed by Louise Osmond and very effectively narrated by Dilly Barlow, was first shown on Britain's Channel Four in 2005 when it was apparently known as Blitz: London's Firestorm. The recent trend in British television documentaries towards utilizing new dramatizations is not everyone's cup of tea and indeed, I've found some of such efforts (see my review of the BBC History of World War II) problematic. In this case, however, the dramatizations are well-handled by an able cast and have an authentic look that overcomes any doubts about such an approach in this instance. The DVD release by PBS Home Video offers a 1.78:1 anamorphic image that looks very crisp and clear, and is nicely detailed. The stereo sound is clear and does an especially nice job of conveying the effective original music by David Hewson. There are no supplements. Recommended.


Classic Reviews

The Laurel and Hardy Collection: Volume One

The Laurel and Hardy Collection: Volume One (1941-1944)
(released on DVD by Fox on April 11th, 2006)

The films that Laurel and Hardy made at Fox during the war years aren't nearly the same caliber as those from their Hal Roach years. Laurel and Hardy themselves knew that and their many fans since know that too, but the films were popular when originally released and reevaluation of them in more recent years suggests that they are not the enormous embarrassments that conventional wisdom would suggest. Watching them now courtesy of Fox's newly released box set reveals modest films that are amiable timepassers with occasional memories of the inventiveness that the boys were famous for. There's little in the way of laugh-out-loud sequences, but there are still plenty of smiles and enough interest from the supporting casts to make watching each a worthwhile and repeatable pastime.

This first volume includes Great Guns (1941), Jitterbugs (1943), and The Big Noise (1944). The other three Fox films the boys made (A-Haunting We Will Go, The Dancing Masters, and The Bullfighters) will appear in a second box set to be released later in 2006. Jitterbugs is the most entertaining of the three films in the current set, with Great Guns a close second. The Big Noise is a distant third.

Great Guns finds Laurel and Hardy working as a pair of aides to wealthy young Dan Forrester who leads a sheltered life due to numerous fancied medical ailments. When his draft notice arrives and Dan passes the physical, Stan and Ollie decide that all they can do is join up too in order to look after their employer. The story features many of the usual army comedy high-jinks with the boys finding themselves frequently the victim of their drill sergeant's ire and at one point under attack on an artillery range when they take refuge inside a moving target. A black raven named Penelope has a prominent role in the picture and leads to one of the film's most successful sequences when Stan tries to hide the bird inside Ollie's trousers while the pair is being inspected on the parade ground. The supporting cast has many welcome familiar faces in the likes of Charles Trowbridge, Ludwig Stossel, Kane Richmond, Mae Marsh, and Irving Bacon, but Dick Nelson (as Dan) and Sheila Ryan (as a young woman at the camp whom Dan falls for) are quite bland. The film was directed by Monty Banks utilizing a pre-written script that minimized the amount of spontaneity possible on the set. The funny bits that resulted thus seemed more like old reliables (Stan carried a long plank across the screen only to show up carrying the opposite end as well, or Stan trying shave by the light of an unusual light bulb) than new inspirations.

Jitterbugs finds Laurel and Hardy as the operators of a two-man band who get mixed up with a small-time con artist who has a tablet that will turn water into gasoline. The scheme goes astray and the three are chased out of town, but a previous chance meeting with a young woman eventually leads to an opportunity to make amends by helping her retrieve money swindled from her mother by big-time grifters. Once again, the boys are saddled with a second male lead who's not particularly interesting (Robert Bailey), but this time the female co-star, Vivian Blaine, is a knock-out. With Fox's desire to give Blaine a good build-up, the film's production values are high in terms of both camerawork and set decoration. Blaine is given three songs to perform and does so most pleasantly. The boys had Mal St. Clair as director this time, and he seemed well in tune with the pair. The plot also gives plenty of possibilities for comedy situations as Hardy gets to impersonate a sheriff and a southern colonel while Stan does one of his effective spinster masquerades. The strong supporting cast includes Douglas Fowley, Lee Patrick, and Noel Madison.

In The Big Noise, Laurel and Hardy are janitors for a detective agency. An inventor of a new bomb calls the agency looking for two detectives to guard his home and the bomb until he can take it to Washington for the army to look at it. The boys decide to pass themselves off as detectives and take the job, only to find that they're up against not only crooks eager to steal the bomb but also their client's many other strange inventions. The film's plot seems as though it should offer a decent scope for some good gags, but just about everything seems stale. The idea of a mechanized room which looks empty at first but which can reveal a bed or table or shower at the touch of a button falls quite flat, never seeming to be utilized to its potential. The film's ending with the boys stuck in a remote-controlled plane being used for target practice also fizzles, particularly when they suddenly sight a Japanese submarine underneath them after parachuting out of the plane. The film's funniest bit is the recycled gag of the boys trying to undress in a train upper-berth. Most of the supporting cast is unmemorable, with only one of Jack Norton's drunk turns enlivening things. At least the main male second lead, Arthur Space as the inventor, is better than usual and the presence of Bobby Blake adds interest as an annoying kid.

Fox has done a really nice job with its release of these films. Each is presented full frame as originally shot and the images are quite nice. Jitterbugs looks the best with a bright, sharp image. The Big Noise also looks quite good although at times a little dark. Great Guns is in general somewhat softer looking than the others. Still, all offer fine image detail and are free of edge effects. Speckling and other debris are minimal. The mono sound tracks provide clear sound although there is some minor background hiss at times. Also provided are English stereo tracks and English and Spanish subtitles. Fox has packaged each film on a separate disc with its own case. Each includes a six-page pamphlet that provides background production notes by film historian and television writer Sylvia Stoddard. Laurel and Hardy author Randy Skretvedt has contributed an audio commentary for each film and they are delightful - full of informed comments and, evaluations, and plenty of background information on production, cast, crew, and particularly the boys themselves. Other supplements distributed across the three discs are a couple of Fox Movietone News items (one lacking sound) in which Laurel and Hardy make appearances, photo galleries, and theatrical trailers. A pleasant bonus for fans also is the 25-minute 1987 featurette The Revenge of the Sons of the Desert which provides background on the Sons of the Desert fan organization. It appears on The Big Noise disc. Recommended.


New Announcements

Once again, the new announcements news is somewhat thin compared to the glut of news in the second-last column, but there are a few choice items nonetheless. The Classic Coming Attractions Database has been updated accordingly. The news is ordered by releasing studio or company and this time comes from personal contacts, releasing company press releases and websites, The Digital Bits, Davis DVD, DVD Times, TV Shows on DVD, The Home Theater Forum, and the ams newsgroup.

All Day Entertainment (who released a number of Elmer Ulmer discs in past years) looks to be getting back into the classics game with a Christmastime 2006 release of The American Slapstick Giftset: Silent Comedy Classics and Archival Rarities. This 3-disc collection will present "seminal works by legendary comedians in unfamiliar roles, lost treasures by forgotten comics, and other ephemera from back in the day! Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel, Larry Semon, Snub Pollard, Billy West, Charlie Chase, Mabel Normand, Billy Bevan, and more".

Alpha rolls out 23 new releases on May 23rd. A fair number are TV series episodes presented in Alpha's standard four episodes per disc format. Examples this time are several volumes of The Adventures of Robin Hood, as well as Medic, Follow That Man, Frontier Doctor, and Dick Tracy. There are a few B westerns (a Three Mesquiteers outing, Prairie Pioneers, along with films starring Tex Ritter and Tom Tyler) and the usual smattering of early mysteries - no serials this time though. See the classic release database for the complete list of titles.

Anchor Bay will have The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: Season One (1964-65) available in a four-disc set on July 25th. Robert Vaughn is apparently involved in some of the set's supplements.

Fox will deliver Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: Season One, Volume Two on July 11th. It's a three-disc set that contains the first season's last 16 episodes. Extras include a blooper reel and a David Hedison interview. Also on the 11th, we finally get the long-rumoured The Black Swan (1942, with Tyrone Power). No details on content as yet. Even more importantly (and is Fox really starting to amaze with its classic efforts this year) is The Will Rogers Collection, Volume 1 coming on July 25th. It features the final four films of Rogers’ career all released in 1935, the year of his death - Life Begins at Forty, Steamboat Round the Bend, Doubting Thomas, and In Old Kentucky. Each will offer audio commentary by either Anthony Slide or Scott Ehman, plus extras such as a 90-minute A&E biography, Movietone News items, restoration comparisons, and trailers. The Shirley Temple Collection, Volume 4 also appears on the 25th. Titles included are Captain January, Just Around the Corner, and Susannah of the Mounties.

Grapevine Video has six new DVD-R offerings for April, equally split between silent and sound titles. Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) will be tinted with an orchestral score and includes the short Whaling in the Pacific. Just Tony (1922) is a Tom Mix film with an orchestral score and includes an excerpt from the short Fighting for Gold (1919). Passion (1919), with Pola Negri and Emil Jannings and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, will be tinted with an orchestral score. Caryl of the Mountains (1936)/Death Goes North (1939) is a Rin Tin Tin double feature. The Phantom Express (1932) is a remastered version of a previously released title, this time including the short The Bees Buzz. Finally, Grapevine is also offering the 4-chapter cult classic serial Captain Celluloid vs. the Film Pirates (1966), featuring such classic film enthusiasts/historians as William K. Everson and Alan G. Barbour.

Milestone Film and Video is bringing a recent BFI Region 2 release to Region 1. Electric Edwardians will be released on July 11th. The disc features 85 minutes of extraordinary footage documenting everyday life in England in the years before World War I. The material was originally shot by pioneer filmmakers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon. Bonus features on the disc will include audio commentary and five additional Mitchell and Kenyon shorts. Also coming on July 11th is Beyond the Rocks: The Deluxe Edition. This is the 1922 Gloria Swanson/Rudolph Valentino film rediscovered by the Netherlands Filmmuseum in 2005. Bonus features will include a 1919 Valentino feature (The Delicious Little Devil) and an 85-minute wire recording of Gloria Swanson from 1955. The aforementioned releases are the second and third in Milestone's new DVD release program called Milliarium Zero. The first one to be announced was the 1972 anti- Vietnam War film, Winter Soldier, scheduled to appear on May 30th. Note that these new Milestone releases are being distributed by New Yorker Video.

New Video will release The Best of Sid Caesar on June 27th. This is a single-disc compilation drawn from New Video's 3-disc Sid Caesar box set (The Sid Caesar Collection: 50th Anniversary Edition) that appeared last year, and will include eight of the most memorable sketches plus extras including an additional sketch, interviews with one of the most impressive comedy-writer lineups television has ever known including (including Mel Brooks and Woody Allen), and rare footage from Sid's Friar's Club Roast.

Paramount's release of Rawhide: Season One (the series that starred Eric Fleming and featured Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates - it first aired in 1959) has now been confirmed for a July 25th release rather than in June as originally tentatively planned. It will be a seven-disc set containing all 23 season-one episodes. In July (the exact release date has not been confirmed as yet), Paramount also mines more of its Republic holdings with releases of four topnotch films - A Double Life, Force of Evil, Johnny Guitar, and Pursued. All except Johnny Guitar were previously made available on DVD by Artisan with the fine western noir Pursued having been a particularly abysmal effort.

Roan Group has added The Silver Horde (1930, with Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur) to its spring release schedule although the exact date is unknown at present.

Sony's MGM arm will return, hesitantly, to its Midnite Movies series with two releases on June 27th - The Boy and the Pirates (1960, directed by Bert Gordon) combined with Crystalstone (1988), and Fortunes of Captain Blood (1950) combined with Captain Pirate (1952). Both of the latter star Louis Hayward and Patricia Medina. Unfortunately the news of this release has resulted in concerns over the future of the Midnite Movies series because of MGM's failure to follow through as yet on its previously anticipated release of Conqueror Worm (1968, aka Witchfinder General). Sony's purchase of MGM has certainly cut back MGM's release volume substantially (for example, there are no Western Legends releases planned for this spring, previously an MGM tradition, and we've been waiting for the SEs of the Sergio Leone westerns forever it seems). In fact, Sony's 2006 record on classic releases for both its MGM and Columbia arms is pathetic to date. Anyone in a position of influence at Sony who has seen the success of Warners' efforts with classic titles should be wondering why its own classic component is failing abysmally to perform when it's obvious that there's money to be made if classic releases are done right.

After what seems like an eternity of waiting, Universal will finally give us a two-disc special edition of Double Indemnity (1944) on August 29th. There are no details on content as yet. Let's hope this is a Legacy Series edition and one at least as good as that for To Kill a Mockingbird.

VCI's first entry in its Forgotten Noir series of double bills is Portland Exposé/They Were So Young (1957/1954), scheduled now for an April 25th release.

Warner Bros. will have a two-disc SE of Grand Prix (1967, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring James Garner) presented in 2.20:1 anamorphic widescreen on July 11th. Extras include documentaries and a trailer. On July 18th, Warners will debut its previously anticipated Warner Bros. Pictures Tough Guys Collection. It will include: Bullets or Ballots (Robinson, Bogart), Each Dawn I Die (Cagney, Raft), G-Men (Cagney), San Quentin (Bogart), A Slight Case of Murder (Robinson), and City for Conquest (Cagney). The films have been fully restored and digitally remastered with special features including audio commentaries and new making-of featurettes. Each disc also contains an exclusive "Warner Night at the Movies" segment that features newsreels, comedy shorts, cartoons, and trailers from the year each film was released. All six titles will also be available separately.

Well, once again, that's all for now. I'll be back again soon.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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