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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #4 - May 2004 (continued)


As Young As You Feel (1951)
Love Nest (1951)
Let's Make It Legal (1951)
We're Not Married (1952)
(all released on DVD by Fox on April 20th, 2004)

With this third wave of Marilyn Monroe films from Fox upon us, the company has pretty well exhausted the titles Monroe appeared in for them. Only The Dangerous Years (1948), A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950), and The Fireball (1950) remain unreleased on DVD and one wonders whether Marilyn's small roles in them will be enough for Fox to consider bringing them out. Meanwhile, the four titles at hand, all from 1951-1952, feature Marilyn in modest roles that gradually built up her stock at Fox.

As Young As You Feel

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Love Nest

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Let's Make It Legal

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We're Not Married

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As Young As You Feel was Marilyn's first film under her second contract with Fox (her first one had been signed in 1946). Marilyn has a small but effective role as a secretary in which she demonstrates an appealing personality as well as some feel for comedy. The film itself was a comedy farce in which John Hodges (Monte Woolley) objects to being automatically retired at age 65 and decides to impersonate the head of his former employer's holding company as a way to change the retirement policy. The story as it plays out is highly improbable, but is an amusing and pleasing concoction that's well-acted by a competent cast that in addition to Woolley and Monroe, includes Thelma Ritter, David Wayne, Jean Peters, Albert Dekker, and Constance Bennett. At 76 minutes, the film doesn't outstay its welcome although the ending is rather flat. The full-frame DVD exhibits an occasionally grainy image, but otherwise is in good shape offering decent contrast and shadow detail. The sound is quite adequate for the dialogue-driven story (English stereo and mono, English and Spanish sub-titles). Supplements consist of trailers for the film plus seven other Monroe films. This, along with Let's Make It Legal, comprise the best bets of the four new Monroe DVDs.

Love Nest, aside from the opportunity to see Marilyn and Jack Paar in early roles, has little to recommend it. The story of a young post-war married couple who try to run a small apartment building in serious need of renovation and get involved in various ways with their tenants has few laughs and ends so ludicrously that one's reaction is of bemusement more than anything else. Marilyn's role is that of a former WAC who rents one of the apartments and as one might expect, becomes a source of irritation for the young couple. The latter are played by June Haver and William Lundigan in a manner that one might describe as bland eagerness. Frank Fay (formerly married to Barbara Stanwyck and considered a film liability in the early 1930s) makes a film comeback of sorts playing a glib conman, while former silent star Leatrice Joy (who had essentially retired in 1930) makes the last of her infrequent supporting appearances in sound films. The film looks quite good on the DVD, offering a bright, detailed image with only occasional speckles and scratches. The sound is more than adequate (English stereo and mono, English and Spanish sub-titles), although there did seem to be a noticeable low frequency component to it. Director Joseph Newman (now 94) provides a somewhat rambling but strong audio commentary that provides some film-specific information but also considerable background on his career in Hollywood. This is a valuable addition to the disc. Newman's comments are concentrated in the first third of the film, but less frequently thereafter. Film historian Jack Allen (and a Monroe biographer) provides the bulk of the commentary over the last two-thirds of the 84-minute running time. Other supplements consist of the film's theatrical trailer plus trailers for seven other Monroe films.

Let's Make It Legal is one of those frothy romantic comedies that seemed to be a staple at all the Hollywood studios - nothing very thought-provoking, but well cast and dependant on star power to drive the rather thin and often contrived plots. In this one, a gorgeous and quite young-looking grandmother divorces her gambling-addicted husband. Her daughter, with but grudging assistance from her son-in-law, tries to reunite them, but runs into difficulty when her mother's former high school sweetheart and now a successful financier shows up seeking to revive their old teenage relationship. The class of the film, as she so frequently is in her films, is Claudette Colbert as the grandmother. Zachary Scott plays his stock caddish role as the returning old flame. Macdonald Carey is rather bland as the divorced husband, but a very young Robert Wagner adds some real energy to his role as the son-in-law. Marilyn plays an attractive young woman on the lookout for a wealthy man, but strikes out when she tries her charms on Zachary Scott. It's not a particularly memorable part. The full-frame DVD looks crisp and film-like, and provides clear dialogue (English stereo and mono, English and Spanish sub-titles). Robert Wagner provides an entertaining and informative audio commentary. There is a theatrical trailer plus trailers for seven other Monroe films. At a running time of 76 minutes, this DVD's an amiable time-passer that's worth a rental at least.

In the early 1950s, anthology pictures were in vogue both in the United States and Britain. A typical example is 1952's We're Not Married. The film relates what happens to five couples when they find out that, through an administrative error, their marriages are not legally valid. The couples include the bickering hosts of a morning radio show (played by Ginger Rogers and Fred Allen), a tycoon with a fortune-hunting wife (Louis Calhern and Zsa Zsa Gabor), a pregnant wife whose husband is a soldier going off to war (Mitzi Gaynor and Eddie Bracken), a well-off couple in a rut (Eve Arden and Paul Douglas), and a young father with a wife trying to win the state beauty pageant (David Wayne and Marilyn Monroe). Unfortunately, only a couple of the segments are really successful. The best is the Calhern/Gabor one, closely followed by the Gaynor/Bracken one. Both are well-written and have satisfying conclusions. The rest are either predictable (bickering hosts), inconsistent (young parents), or completely pointless (well-off couple). Marilyn is lively and appealing in her role, but alas she's teamed with the bland David Wayne and their segment goes nowhere. The DVD transfer is similar to As Young As You Feel, offering a decent full-frame image - reasonably sharp and with only modest grain in evidence. The sound is quite adequate (English stereo and mono, English and Spanish sub-titles). Supplements consist of the theatrical trailer and trailers for seven other Monroe films.


Call Me Madam (1953)
(released on DVD by Fox on April 20th, 2004)

Ethel Merman, with her unique style of belting out a song, was one of the stars most highly identified with the Broadway musical. Beginning with her debut in 1930, she headlined many of the best Broadway shows for the next three decades. But when Hollywood decided to make film versions of those shows, Merman did not always follow and the likes of Betty Hutton, Lucille Ball, and Ann Sothern got the call. Exceptions were the likes of 1936's Anything Goes, 1954's There No Business Like Show Business, and 1953's Call Me Madam. The latter, Irving Berlin's last big musical success, tells the story of Washington socialite Sally Adams who becomes a U.S. Ambassador to the European kingdom of Lichtenburg.

Call Me Madam

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Call Me Madam has been in the want list for many musical aficionados for years and it's not hard to see why. This one has it all, from the larger-than-life presence of Merman to fine Irving Berlin songs such as "The Hostess with the Mostest" and "You're Just in Love", remarkable dances from Donald O'Connor and Vera-Ellen, inspired against-the-grain casting of George Sanders (even if he does appear somewhat bemused by what he's got himself involved in at times), and a fine cast of supporting players such as Billy De Wolfe, Walter Slezak, Helmut Dantine, Charles Dingle, and Percy Helton). Direction is ably handled by Fox veteran Walter Lang and it's all in Technicolor. Who could ask for anything more?

Well, how about a good DVD version? There, Fox delivers too with a very nice-looking full frame image in accord with the original aspect ratio. The colours are very vibrant and the image is quite sharp with only a couple of sequences that appear somewhat soft. Blacks are deep and glossy and whites are clean. There is minor speckling and debris and some modest grain, but nothing that detracts from one's enjoyment. The sound is quite adequate with all dialogue being clear and the musical numbers having some punch, although excessive amplification is not recommended. Both mono and stereo tracks are included with the stereo one offering a very slightly more expansive sound. English and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Supplements include an enthusiastic though at times intermittent commentary by musical film scholar Miles Kreuger, the theatrical teaser and trailer, and trailers for other Fox musicals. Recommended.


Prince Valiant (1954)
(released on DVD by Fox on May 11th, 2004)

The Prince Valiant comic strip created by Harold Foster in the 1930s, although it featured a fictitious character, was otherwise drawn with an eye to historical accuracy and featured Foster's exceedingly fine line work. It seemed a natural for a filmed version and in the early 1950s, became one of the adventure films to which Fox felt its new CinemaScope process was best suited. The story is set in Arthurian England with a little Viking Scandinavia (Scandia) thrown in, and concerns the efforts of the young Prince Valiant to return his father to his rightful place as the king of Scandia. Along the way, Valiant becomes mixed up with the knights of the Round Table (particularly Sir Gawain and Sir Brack), Arthur himself, and the beautiful princess Aleta.

Prince Valiant

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Prince Valiant turns out to be rousing entertainment, although the jury remains out for the film's first half. There's no denying that the film looks great (excellent Technicolor cinematography by Lucien Ballard) and benefits from a rousing score by Franz Waxman, but it's a little difficult to get beyond some of the casting at first. The real problem is Sterling Hayden as Sir Gawain. People often point to such Tony Curtis lines spoken as "Yonda lies duh castle aw me fadda" as examples of poor casting choices for historical films, but in my book, Hayden takes the cake with his efforts in Prince Valiant. Hayden's voice suits that of the urban American tough guy and no matter what he does, his efforts to portray an English knight of yore are embarrassing. Every word he speaks breaks any spell of period Britain that may have been built up by the film. Fortunately, his presence in the film is sporadic and you learn to roll with the punches whenever he appears. Robert Wagner also raises some questions in one's mind when he first appears as the young Prince Valiant sporting a long black wig, but his energy and athleticism soon overcome one's misgivings. Then there's the issue of Victor McLaglen as the Viking Boltar. He looks the part well enough, but it's hard to put Sergeant Quincannon or Will Danaher out of your mind every time you see him. The other main parts are less problematic. It's hard to go wrong with Janet Leigh as the beautiful Princess Aleta, or James Mason as the evil Sir Brack. Well cast in lesser roles are Donald Crisp, Brian Aherne, and Debra Paget.

The film really shines during its second half as director Henry Hathaway, well known for his skill with action films, orchestrates a marvelous siege of the Viking castle and then stages an excellent sword duel between Wagner and Mason. It's exciting stuff that leaves you with a feeling of having been well entertained at the end of the film's 100 minutes playing time, despite the initial concerns.

The film is presented on DVD in a 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer that looks very nice for the most part. The image is somewhat dark during the first quarter of the film, but improves thereafter. Colours are otherwise bright and vibrant, with deep blacks and accurate flesh tones. The source material is not pristine as the image does sport some speckles and minor debris, but this does not detract from one's overall favorable impression. The film was originally released in stereo and the DVD exhibits some distinct separation across the front. Dialogue is always clear despite some background hiss and the battle scenes have some modest presence to them. French and Spanish mono tracks are also provided as are English and Spanish sub-titles. Supplements include a Movietone newsreel (with but a very minor connection to Prince Valiant), the theatrical trailer, and trailers for four other Fox adventure films, one of which is The Black Swan. Perhaps that means its DVD is not far off! Recommended.


Desk Set (1957)
(released on DVD by Fox on May 11th, 2004)

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made nine films together during the 26-year period beginning in 1942 and ending with Tracy's death in 1967. Four of them provided excellent entertainment (Woman of the Year, State of the Union, Adam's Rib, and Pat and Mike) while only one was a real misfire (The Sea of Grass). Of the other four, two have become unjustly overlooked (Keeper of the Flame and Without Love), but the remaining two have stayed high in people's consciousness because one represents the duo's final teaming and has been available on DVD for some time now (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) while the other has been in much demand as it completes a virtual thematic trilogy of films with Adam's Rib and Pat and Mike. The film is 1957's Desk Set and Fox has at long last made it available on DVD as part of its Studio Classics series.

Desk Set

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The film is a romantic comedy that follows the complications that arise when computer expert Richard Sumner (Tracy) shows up in the research department of the Federal Broadcasting Company where he is apparently looking to replace the department's staff with his computer brainchild, Emerac. The department is headed up by Bunny Watson (Hepburn) who soon finds herself strangely drawn to Sumner, despite a long-standing relationship with another company employee, Mike Cutler (Gig Young), whom Bunny despairs of ever asking her to marry him. Like the other successful Tracy/Hepburn films, Desk Set relies on the extraordinary chemistry between the two stars to make the most of the situational comedy that the script develops. There are no real belly laughs here, but there is an almost continuous string of chuckles throughout. Not the least of which are provided by the sight of Emerac herself, the typical gigantic box of flashing lights and whirring sounds that heralded early computers on film. While Tracy and Hepburn typically both shine in their knowing exchanges with each other, Hepburn's is the central role and she has a wide variety of other opportunities including a nicely acted sequence during which she gets progressively drunker celebrating Christmas at the office. As Cutler, the third man in the triangle, Gig Young works well with the pair, a particular highlight being the confrontation at Bunny's apartment when Cutler shows up unexpectedly and interrupts Bunny's innocent dinner with Sumner, both clad in dressing gowns. The supporting cast also includes Dina Merrill in her first role and the veteran Joan Blondell (both play members of Bunny's staff). Director Walter Lang makes good use of the wide Cinemascope image.

Fox's DVD release is another excellent-looking entry in its Studio Classics series. The 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation is characterized by vibrant colours and a particularly clean image. Blacks are deep and glossy and shadow detail is very good. Flesh tones are accurate. Edge effects are virtually non-existent. Both stereo and mono English audio is provided, although there is little marked difference between their effects. The sound is clear and distortion free. A Spanish mono track is provided as are English and Spanish sub-titles. In terms of supplements, this offering is a little thinner than most Studio Classics entries. There is an audio commentary featuring film historian John Lee and actress Dina Merrill (who plays one of the research department staff in the film) that is reasonably entertaining. Lee provides most of the historical production details somewhat dryly, but Merrill chimes in with a number of interesting reminiscences. (Incidentally, the packaging does not mention Lee's participation in the commentary. On the other hand, it does list Neva Patterson as a participant, but she is not involved at all.) Other supplements include a short Movietone newsreel Designers Inspired for New Creations by Film Desk Set, the theatrical trailer, a stills gallery, and trailers for An Affair to Remember, All About Eve, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and The Seven Year Itch. Highly recommended.


A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)
(released on DVD by Fox on April 20th, 2004)

The DVD release of Master and Commander has inspired Fox to release a couple of other nautical adventure films, the somewhat cheesy Pirates of Tortuga and the rather more intelligent A High Wind in Jamaica. The latter tells the tale of a group of children who are sent from Jamaica to England to attend school after their parents become concerned that they're not growing up as civilized as they should. The ship on which they are traveling, however, is seized by pirates and the children seem fated for a more uncivilized end.

A High Wind in Jamaica

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The best thing about the film is that nothing plays out as one expects. There are no precocious kids running the pirate crew ragged, no exciting pirate clashes on the high seas, and least of all a simple feel-good ending. The innocence and trusting nature of the children lies at the core of the film and everything that happens turns on that nature remaining pure, which it does. The pirate captain Chavez (played by Anthony Quinn), and to a lesser extent his chief officer James Coburn, are both changed by their involvement with the children and their fate is eventually sealed as a result. Both Quinn and Coburn offer delightful portrayals, eschewing stock pirate mannerisms for those of humane and even honourable men. The strength of the picture must be attributed to director Alexander Mackendrick though, as he draws out fine performances from the whole cast, particularly the children (amongst whom, Deborah Baxter is a standout as the young Emily - her work in the courtroom scene at the end is excellent). He also evokes life aboard the ship effectively and paints a bright and brash picture of the port town of Tampico.

Despite its pleasures, the film had a short shelf-life when originally released in 1965 and it has probably not been seen since in its real CinemaScope glory. It's a pleasure to report that Fox's DVD replicates that glory fairly consistently. Colours (originally by DeLuxe) are vibrant and true; blacks are deep and pure and shadow detail is very good. There are no edge effects. The film's sound is less impressive, sounding rather harsh at times and even difficult to understand in a few cases. English stereo and mono and French and Spanish mono tracks are provided, as are English and Spanish sub-titles. The only supplements are English and Spanish theatrical trailers. Recommended.


Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965)
(released on DVD by Fox on March 16th, 2004)

This is one of those fun movies that's it's almost impossible not to like. Yes, it goes on a bit too long and some of the characters are rather tiresome, but everybody seems to be having a fun time and the amazing collection of flying vehicles (some of them don't look in the slightest likes planes!) is such a joy to behold that one can't help but smile and have an enjoyable experience. The story involves a 1910 London-to-Paris air race that brings together ace fliers from around the world - England, France, Germany, Italy, United States, and Japan - all vying for the £10,000 prize offered by the publisher of a British newspaper.

Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

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The star of the show is the collection of flying machines that is utilized and the realization that all of them had to be constructed for the film. There's nary a computer-generated plane in sight. Of course, some of them haven't a hope of getting into the air, but that's part of the film's joy - seeing just which odd machine can succeed, for however short a time. Eventually, for there to be a race, some of the machines have to be airworthy. For those that are, the film then offers plenty of entertaining stunt work both by the planes themselves and on the planes by the people traveling in them. There is a cast comprising a list of well-known actors including James Fox, Sarah Miles, Stuart Whitman, Gert Frobe, and Terry-Thomas, but they're strictly along for the ride. It's actually more interesting to keep one's eyes peeled for small but welcome contributions by the likes of Eric Sykes, Red Skelton, Benny Hill, and Tony Hancock. Director Ken Annakin was quite enthusiastic about this project and it shows in the film's loving embracing of early flying machinery. He later applied the same concept to a 1500-mile car race (Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies, 1969).

Fox offers up a nominally 2.20:1 (it seems somewhat less than that) anamorphic transfer that does justice to the film with a clean, colourful, and fairly crisp transfer. Could it have been a bit sharper? Possibly, but Fox has chosen to fit the fairly lengthy film (137 minutes) on one side of a dual-layer disc along with a fine audio commentary by the director, making-of conversations with the director, photo galleries, and the theatrical trailer and teaser so that probably dictated a somewhat lower bit rate than might have otherwise been utilized. Fox has provided a new Dolby Digital 5.0 audio track that works quite well. There's decent front separation, but very limited use of the surrounds. Spanish and French mono tracks and English and Spanish subtitles are provided. Recommended.


Bandolero! (1968)
(released on DVD by Fox on March 9th, 2004)

It's always a pleasure to have another Jimmy Stewart film on DVD, even if it is one from rather late in his career and co-starring western-star wannabe Dean Martin. At least Raquel Welsh and George Kennedy are along for the ride as compensation. This release of 1968's Bandolero! is nominally part of Fox's Raquel Welsh collection which sees Myra Breckinridge, One Million Years B.C., and Mother, Jugs & Speed being released at the same time. All the publicity for the release went to Myra Breckinridge - God knows why, when any of the other three are far more interesting entertainment. (Well, we know why, but that doesn't make it right, for thinking movie fans.)

Bandolero!

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Bandolero! recounts the story of the estranged Bishop brothers (Stewart and Martin) who have to reunite when one of them faces being hanged. The Bishops and their henchmen then head for Mexico along with an attractive hostage (Welsh) with a posse led by George Kennedy in hot pursuit. It seems there's more to it than just one of the Bishops cheating the hangman; the other apparently decided to appropriate a sizeable chunk of cash from the town bank in conjunction with freeing his brother.

Anyone familiar with this film knows that it's not in the same league as Stewart's classic westerns from the 1950s, but for 1968, it was still one of the better outings for a genre then facing decline. Even at age 60, Stewart looked like a formidable adversary, experience hardened and little fazed by adversity. Unfortunately, he gets little support from Dean Martin who was still living on his Rio Bravo work for Howard Hawks a decade before. Other than that one performance, Martin always looked like he was playing at being a westerner, as he does here. Raquel Welsh is fine in the thankless role of the attractive hostage. George Kennedy plays the sheriff with forcefulness and conviction. Other than Stewart, however, the film's main pleasure as with many westerns of the period lies in its usage of numerous familiar western supporting players. This time, we have the likes of Will Geer, Denver Pyle, Don 'Red' Barry, Harry Carey Jr., Jock Mahoney, Dub Taylor, and Roy Barcroft. Direction is competently handled by Andrew V. McLaglen - something he would continue to do for many westerns of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s.

The film's western vistas are very well displayed by Fox's excellent 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. Colours are bright and accurate and the image looks crisp and clear. Some very minor edge effects are present, but not a concern. The Dolby Digital stereo audio is quite adequate, offering clarity but only modest front separation at best. French and Spanish mono tracks plus English and Spanish sub-titling are provided. Extras consist of a couple of trailers for the title film and trailers for a handful of Raquel Welsh's other films available on DVD. Recommended for western fans.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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