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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Columbia seems to be on a mission to issue all of its films starring Cary Grant on DVD. They've previously given us superior DVDs of Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and His Girl Friday (1940). During the past four months, we've seen four more titles appear - The Awful Truth (1937), The Howards of Virginia (1940), The Talk of the Town (1942), Once Upon a Time (1944) - while one other - Walk, Don't Run (1966) - is scheduled for the end of April. Now all we need is to see announcements for When You're in Love (1937) and Holiday (1938), and a Columbia replacement for all those sub-standard public domain releases of Penny Serenade (1941). Herewith, reviews of a couple of the recently released titles - The Talk of the Town and Once Upon a Time.

The Talk of the Town

This was director George Stevens' second film for Columbia under a three-picture deal that he had signed with them after many years at RKO. Stevens was considered one of Hollywood's leading directors at the time so Harry Cohn had been quite happy to get him. The first film had been Penny Serenade, which had seen Stevens' deft touch with romance result in a tremendous hit starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. Columbia was eager to re-team Grant and Stevens and The Talk of the Town was the result. Jean Arthur, who was under contract to Columbia and had rejected a number of scripts, agreed to participate partly because the script was appealing but also because she found Stevens' methodical working methods to be in tune with her acting style. Rounding out the top-billed cast members was the reliable and smoothly appealing Ronald Colman.

The Talk of the Town

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The film had a very fine script written by Irwin Shaw and Sidney Buchman. The story revolves around Leopold Dilg who has been falsely accused of arson and murder. He escapes from custody and seeks refuge at an unoccupied house owned by school teacher Nora Shelley. Nora happens to be in the house preparing it for a summer tenant. The tenant is law school dean Michael Lightcap who hopes to write a legal treatise while there. Nora agrees to hide Dilg in the house, but Lightcap arrives early and Nora tries to pass Dilg off as her gardener. Eventually, Lightcap learns Dilg's true identity and Nora asks him to use his legal expertise to help Dilg. At first Lightcap refuses, but he soon realizes that all is not as it seems with the Dilg case and he decides to do a little investigating himself.

With its finely-balanced blend of comedy and social significance, The Talk of the Town was in many ways just the sort of thing one might have expected to see Frank Capra's name attached to. Except, Frank Capra had long since left Columbia after one too many exhausting fights with Harry Cohn and was by 1942 working on government war documentaries. But with Stevens at the helm, Capra wasn't missed in this case.

Stevens draws one of Jean Arthur's finest performances (as Nora) out of her (and to prove it was no fluke, managed to do the same in his third Columbia picture, The More The Merrier). Arthur's blend of bewilderment and heartfelt ordinary reactions to extraordinary situations never stood her in better stead than it did in these two films. Grant (as Dilg) and Colman (as Lightcap) are ideal complements to both Arthur and each other, making the film one of the better examples of successful teamings of three major stars. The classy Colman fits his part to a "t" and he has the more satisfying role of the two male stars, perhaps reflecting the fact that Grant's role had been built up by George Stevens from how it was originally conceived. The film is perhaps a little long for the material, but the cast is so exceptional that extra minutes spent with them is no hardship. The Talk of the Town received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Cinematography, and Screenplay, but lost out in all categories.

Columbia's work on its DVD is indifferent at best, and it's annoyingly apparent when you compare the company's efforts on a Cary Grant film of similar vintage - His Girl Friday or with some of the work that WB is doing on its classic titles. Parts of the transfer are good with exceptionally deep blacks being the best characteristic, but there is a great deal of inconsistency. Some scenes are quite dark with poor shadow detail; others are quite soft, almost appearing out of focus in one instance. The source material is obviously in need a restoration as the transfer is visited by numerous speckles and scratches as well as a very noticeable vertical line on the left side of the image that remains for several minutes near the film's mid-point. Ignore the box notation that suggests the film "has been re-formatted to fit your TV". The film is presented full frame in accord with the 1.37:1 OAR. The sound track rates no particular notice and the supplements consist of three trailers, none of which is for the film itself. I recommend this disc only by virtue of the excellence of the film itself and the rather low likelihood of it being revisited on disc by Columbia anytime soon.

Once Upon a Time

This is a minor entry in Cary Grant's filmography. The story was based on a radio play called My Client Curly in which hard-pressed Broadway producer Jerry Flynn happens upon a young boy, Pinky, who has a trained caterpillar named Curly. Whenever Pinky plays the song Yes Sir, That's My Baby on his mouth organ, Curly starts to dance. Jerry makes a deal with Pinky to promote Curly, but the whole deal goes sour eventually, leaving Pinky miserable and Jerry in the doghouse with Pinky's sister Jeanne. If you think "metamorphosis", you'll have an inkling of the story's resolution.

Once Upon a Time

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The role of Jerry Flynn was familiar territory indeed for Cary Grant. He was good as always, but the film came at a time when Grant was depressed somewhat over a failing second marriage as well as a lack of recognition by his peers that he was any more than a glib-talking leading man in romantic comedies. It is somewhat surprising then that he expressed interest in appearing in the film, as a replacement for Humphrey Bogart (who seems unimaginable in the part, and who eventually dropped out in favour of the lead role in Sahara [1943, Columbia]). The premise of the story is good, but is too slight to sustain an 88-minute feature. A caterpillar and a song only go so far when the rest of the package lacks the witty writing and leading-man-and-woman partnership of the best comedies. Janet Blair (as Jeanne) never really develops any sparks with Grant's character, although to be fair the script doesn't really give the relationship much of a chance to do so. It's nice to see the likes of James Gleason and William Demarest in support, but there's not much for them to do.

Columbia's DVD effort for Once Upon a Time (not previously available on any home video format) is another indifferent effort. We get a full frame transfer (in accord with the OAR) that exhibits no efforts at restoration whatsoever. The source material is in rough shape from the look of things, resulting in a transfer that is frequently soft-looking and characterized by all sorts of age-related nicks and scratches as well as evidence of negative deterioration. The sound track is also pretty rough with noticeable hiss and crackling. Again the supplements consist of three trailers, none of which are for the film itself. For Cary Grant completists only.

The Classic Coming Attractions Database

I've updated the Classic Coming Attractions Database (for Region 1) with all the new announcements found below. Click here (or on the link at the main column page) to download the database in Microsoft Word document format.

And now, on to...

The Latest Classic Announcements

Warner Brothers seems determined to grab our hearts and wallets with an impressive array of news about forthcoming classic releases. A recent internet chat with WB representatives hosted by the Home Theater Forum (full transcript here) yielded the following information that will be exciting to all classic film fans.

In September 2003, we can expect 2-disc SEs of The Adventures of Robin Hood, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Yankee Doodle Dandy all remastered from new restored film elements directly made from the nitrate original. To Have and Have Not and High Sierra are on their way before year's end as is a 60th anniversary SE of Casablanca. Bogart, Cagney, and Flynn films are higher on the WB agenda than more Bette Davis titles. Many of Davis' films such as The Old Maid, All This and Heaven Too, Mr. Skeffington, and Marked Woman need thorough restorations from the original negatives so that they can look as good as Now Voyager.

Coming in October are The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1952), The Black Scorpion (1957), and The Valley of the Gwangi (1969). Also coming later this year is the first big Looney Tunes release. All of the cartoons are being remastered from new film elements made from the original negatives. WB has an extensive program planned that finally unites both the pre-'48 Turner-owned cartoons and the later WB cartoons. The release will contain lots of extras directed towards classic animation fans, with participation from several respected animation experts. Around the World in 80 Days will appear soon and will include the prologue and intermission music.

In 2004, there are numerous goodies in store including: Dial M for Murder (part of a big Hitchcock collection that probably includes Suspicion, The Wrong Man, Stage Fright, and Foreign Correspondent), Meet Me in St. Louis, some Val Lewton classics, The Bad Seed, That's Entertainment (30th anniversary), Freaks, Tom and Jerry collections with uncut theatrical versions of the cartoons from 1940-1957, more Errol Flynn including a new feature-length documentary, Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera, A Day at the Races, and others), Libeled Lady, and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).

Other Warner news of items in the works but with no specific date includes a restored version of The Jazz Singer (no other early Vitaphone material is in the works at present), more of The Thin Man series (but no box set), and The Sea Wolf (for which WB is looking for 35mm elements for the complete version - it is aware of the existing 16mm elements).

The RKO component of the WB catalog was again confirmed to be in rough shape. In addition to the aforementioned Val Lewton films, WB is actively working on some of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films (such as Swing Time and Top Hat), The Magnificent Ambersons (not scheduled as yet but they hope to release it in the near future), and other choice gems (could Out of the Past be one of them?).

WB indicated that it plans a special marketing initiative that will introduce silent films from its catalog. Lon Chaney films are likely to be part of this. No specific titles were mentioned. The company is also looking to release East of Eden, but there are legal entanglements to be dealt with first. WB is also interested in a Singin' in the Rain type of restoration for An American in Paris, but that is in the future. Not planned for release at this time are such titles as Queen Christina, Storm Warning, Point Blank, and Up the Down Staircase.

In non-WB news, Columbia will release The Long Ships (1964) on June 24th and Don't Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968, with Jerry Lewis) and The Mouse That Roared (1959, with Peter Sellers) on July 8th. Criterion's forthcoming Floating Weeds (1959, directed by Yasujiro Ozu) will contain a commentary by Roger Ebert and the 1934 silent original The Story of Floating Weeds. Fox will release newly mastered transfers of Barbra Streisand's Hello, Dolly (1968) with a vintage 1969 featurette and a retrospective, and the full-length version of Star! (1968, with Julie Andrews) on August 19th. Paramount will release I Love Lucy: Season 1, Volumes 7 and 8 on July 1st. Universal will give us Marlon Brando's The Ugly American (1963) and The Night of the Following Day (1969) on August 12th. Both will have new anamorphic widescreen transfers, Dolby 2.0 surround, and trailers.

Disney's longer term release plans include Platinum editions of Bambi (1942) in fall 2006, Cinderella (1950) in fall 2007, Lady and the Tramp (1955) in fall 2008, 101 Dalmatians (1961) in fall 2009, and The Jungle Book (1967) in fall 2010. The Disney Treasures later this year will likely include Disney in Outer Space after all, so there will be four titles in the release.

It now appears that all 14 of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films will be released on DVD through MPI beginning in September. The films will appear at a rate of two per month.

On May 13th, Madacy will release five serials: Dick Tracy (1937), yet another Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935), The Painted Stallion (1937), and Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939).

Finally, Alpha Video has another lengthy list of films, this time for release on June 10th. The titles are: The Clancy Street Boys (1943, with the East Side Kids), The Day the Sky Exploded (1958), Gangs Inc. (1941, with Alan Ladd), The Girl in Lover's Lane (1959), Murder at the Baskervilles (1937), 'Neath Brooklyn Bridge (1942, with the East Side Kids), Orphans of the Storm (1922), Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1966, with Basil Rathbone), White Pongo (1945), Winterset (1936, with Burgess Meredith), The Witch's Curse (1962), and another version of Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939).

Until next time...!

Barrie Maxwell
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