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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #18 - June 2005 (Continued)

Paris Underground (1945)
(released on DVD by Image on April 26th, 2005)

With the benefit of 60 years of study and release of information about underground activities in France during World War II, the inaccuracy of what is on view in Paris Underground is quite striking. The idea of two women involving themselves in spiriting allied soldiers away from the arms of the occupying German forces may well be based on fact, but the idea that they were able to do it so openly and operate in such a cavalier fashion (driving a big convertible, dining on the best cuts of meat at cafes that otherwise served horsemeat to the Germans, etc.) stretches credulity. Of course, no one expects movies - especially wartime propaganda efforts - to get their facts straight, but somehow the lack of any attempt at accuracy struck me more forcefully than usual in this case. Perhaps it's the current celebration of the 60th anniversary of VE Day that prompted it.

Paris Underground

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That aside, Paris Underground is an entertaining enough film while it relates the saga of an American (Constance Bennett) and British (Gracie Fields) woman's efforts to carry out their work of smuggling Allied troops out of the country, using Paris as their base. Where it falters is in its hasty and ill-conceived wrap-up of what happens to the pair after they are finally arrested. Based on a book by Etta Shiber dealing with her experiences helping downed Allied flyers, the film was actually produced by Bennett who was dabbling in feature film production at the time. She had previously financed several films by Henri de la Falaise, a French adventurer/explorer and her husband in the 1930s. Gracie Fields, the film's other main star, was of course the well-known British music hall performer and this film was her last motion picture performance. Released through United Artists after the end of the war, the film did not do particularly great business. It was re-released in 1951 by Realart Films under the title Guerillas of the Underground.

Image has issued the film on DVD, and according to the package notes, the film was restored by the British Film Institute and Wade Williams from the only surviving 35mm negative. It doesn't appear to have been a very exhaustive restoration, however, as the resulting transfer sports plenty of scratches and speckles and even the occasional missing frame. The image looks a little soft and image detail is average at best, with the transfer not exhibiting anything near the crispness of the best B&W discs. The mono sound is clear enough, but there is some background hiss. There are no sub-titles and no disc supplements.

Shirley Temple: Little Darling Pack
(released on DVD by Universal on April 19th, 2005)

During the first two years of her Fox contract signed in 1933, Shirley Temple was loaned out on two occasions upon Paramount's request for her services. For the rest of the decade, recognizing her worth to the company, Fox restricted her to working exclusively on Fox productions. The two Paramount films were Little Miss Marker and Now and Forever, both originally made in 1934 and now both released on DVD by Universal on a single disc that the company has entitled Shirley Temple: Little Darling Pack.

Shirley Temple: Little Darling Pack

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In Little Miss Marker, Shirley is left with a group of gangsters as a guarantee that her father will return with money that he owes on a failed bet (hence the term "marker"). When the father dies, the gangsters are left to look after the little girl who soon wins them all over and even looks likely to reform one of the most inveterate of them, one Sorrowful Jones. In Now and Forever, a young married couple live the good life by stealing money whenever necessary to finance their travels. The young wife tires of this life and heads to Europe to think things over while her husband heads to the States where he plans to hand over custody of his young daughter from a previous marriage to his former wife's brother in exchange for $75,000. His daughter (Shirley of course) is so beguiling that he changes his mind and heads back to Europe with her to meet his wife. The couple attempt to go straight in order to start a good family life, but temptation proves too great and Shirley's future is put in jeopardy when the husband steals a necklace from an wealthy, elderly woman that Shirley has befriended.

While neither film is as impressive as the best of her later Fox films, both are pleasing entertainments with reliable casts and some good early examples of Temple's amazing precociousness. Each film offers at least one instance in which she gets to show off her singing and dancing ability, so amazing for a six-year old at the time. As would be typical of her films at Fox, Paramount surrounded Shirley with excellent casts in both films. For the Damon Runyon tale Little Miss Marker, the likes of Adolphe Menjou and Charles Bickford co-starred, while for Now and Forever, Paramount was even more generous, utilizing Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard as the young couple. Shirley got along well with her co-stars, particularly Cooper who seemed quite taken with her. Menjou found her scene-stealing abilities quite scary for one so young.

Given Temple's importance to Fox in the 1930s, that studio's treatment of her on DVD to date has been shameful. A release of three titles several years ago provided abominable B&W transfers as well as even more objectionable colourized versions. The studio is apparently going to try again in August, but initial indications for an improved product are not favourable. Meanwhile, Universal shows how it can be done. While admittedly not offering pristine restored transfers, it has treated the two Paramount films with respect. The black and white films look quite good with generally crisp transfers and good image detail. There is a fair bit of grain in evidence. Scratches and speckles are present (somewhat more so on Now and Forever), but they never distract from one's enjoyment of the film. And Universal does not degrade its presentation by adding useless colourized versions. The mono sound is quite legible although background hiss is certainly noticeable on both films. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. Universal even gives us a nice supplement, Shirley's arguably first (sources differ) film appearance, in 1932's The Runt Page, one of a series of shorts known as "Baby Burlesks" in which popular films of the day were satirized using young children in acting roles with their dialogue (at least in this particular instance) dubbed by adults. The film satirized here was The Front Page. Recommended.

The Noose Hangs High (1948)
Dance with Me, Henry (1955)
(both released on DVD by MGM on May 17th, 2005)

While Abbott and Costello fans hopefully await Universal completing its Franchise Collection volumes covering the popular team's Universal films, MGM has filled the gap with its release of a couple of lesser-known titles -Eagle-Lion's The Noose Hangs High and UA's Dance with Me, Henry. The latter was the team's last film together.

The Noose Hangs HighDance with Me, Henry

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The Noose Hangs High was the first fruit of Abbott and Costello's new Universal contract in 1948 that allowed them to make one independent production per year. It was actually a film that the duo had planned to make earlier at Universal, but in this instance they purchased the story from Universal to make themselves. It might as well have been an actual Universal production, for director Charles Barton was borrowed from the studio as were several other crew members. The story finds the duo mistakenly taken to be delivery men who are then asked by a bookie to pick up $50,000 for him. Of course, Lou manages to lose the money and he and Bud end up having 36 hours in which to find it or else. The story's a slim one, but it's enough keep us going as the pair go through a number of their best routines along the way. The film also benefits from a strong supporting cast that includes Joseph Calleia as the bookie, Leon Errol as a bettor who's never wrong, and Mike Mazurki as a slow-witted hood. It's certainly not in the pair's top echelon of films, but an entertaining outing nonetheless. MGM's DVD (correctly presented full frame) looks very good. Blacks are deep and shadow detail is very good. Source defects are minor. The mono sound is quite adequate for the job. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. There are no supplements. A definite purchase for Abbott and Costello fans and a worthy rental for others.

Dance with Me, Henry finds the pair operating an amusement park called Kiddyland. Lou is the owner, but he has two children whose home life the local welfare board is concerned about because of the park environment. His partner Bud is also a gambler who runs afoul of the mob, drawing Lou into his problems and causing Lou's children to be taken away by the welfare board as a result. Bud's problems involve murder and some missing money from a bank robbery. Lou and Bud must sort the whole thing out if Lou is to have any chance of getting custody of his children back. Made after the expiration of the pair's second Universal contract, the film has a more-balanced blend of storyline and slapstick content than much of the pair's previous Universal entries in the 1950s. Despite that, it all seems a little tired and the pair's timing appears off. Bud Abbott later admitted that the pair stuck to their lines much more than normal because they believed in the script, so the old spontaneity wasn't there. The supporting cast is merely passable although there are a few familiar faces with the likes of Mary Wickes and Rusty Hamer being involved. The film was shot at RKO and released by United Artists. While not their worst outing, it's close. MGM's DVD (correctly presented full frame) is somewhat similar in image quality to The Noose Hangs High. It's slightly softer and less crisp, but not by too much. There's a bit more speckling evident. Sound characteristics are identical. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer.

The Razor's Edge (1946)
Anna and the King of Siam (1946)
The Best of Everything (1959)
(all released on DVD by Fox on May 24th, 2005)

The latest wave of Fox's Studio Classics series has a little something for everyone - thoughtful drama (The Razor's Edge), exotic romanticism (Anna and the King of Siam), and pot-boiling guilty pleasure (The Best of Everything).

The Razor's EdgeAnna and the King of SiamThe Best of Everything

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Taken from Somerset Maugham's novel of the same title, The Razor's Edge is the story of Larry Darrell, a young man who returns to America from the First World War unsure of himself and seeking spiritual peace. He heads for Paris leaving behind fiancée Isabel Bradley. When she later visits him there, Larry offers Isabel marriage but she rejects him, feeling him unable to supply the financial security she craves. Larry continues his travels, eventually going to the Himalayas where he finds much of the peace he has been seeking. Ten years later, he returns to Paris where he finds that Isabel has since married, but she and her husband are in difficulties due to the stock market crash and have come to stay at the home of Isabel's supercilious uncle, Elliott Templeton. A good friend of Isabel's and long-time acquaintance of Larry's - Sophie Nelson - has lost her husband and child in a car crash and has become an alcoholic haunting the seedier bistros of the city. Larry tries to help Sophie and they eventually plan to marry, but Isabel who still loves Larry interferes with fatal consequences. The Razor's Edge is a long film with lengthy expository sequences, but it is thoughtful and will reward those with patience. Anyone who has questioned their place in the world or the direction of their future will find that it strikes a sympathetic chord. Fox made a large investment in the film and the polished production shows it - from the art and set decoration to the fine photography, appealing score by Alfred Newman, tasteful direction by Edmund Goulding, and a high-powered cast. For Fox star Tyrone Power, it was his first film after returning from military service in World War II. A departure from the more happy-go-lucky pre-war roles he was known for, it gave him an excellent opportunity to show off an acting capability previously only hinted at. He succeeds for the most part although he tends to rely a bit much on an open-faced sunny disposition rather than really seeming to dig into the role. He would follow it up with even better work in Nightmare Alley. Power's supporting cast is a potent one - Gene Tierney as Isabel, Anne Baxter as Sophie, Herbert Marshall as Somerset Maugham, John Payne as Isabel's husband, and Clifton Webb as Elliott Templeton. While all are effective, particularly Webb and Tierney, the least persuasive work is delivered by Anne Baxter who ironically won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her efforts. Fox's DVD presentation is highly pleasing. The full frame image is characterized by excellent image detail, glossy blacks and clean whites with only minor speckling in evidence. The mono sound is clear with only a hint of hiss at higher volumes. An English stereo track that adds nothing to the mono one, a Spanish mono track, and English and Spanish sub-titles are also provided. The main supplement is an audio commentary by film historians Anthony Slide and Robert Birchard that is very enlightening and entertaining. Also included are three Fox Movietone newsreel segments. Recommended.

The Best of Everything is a glossy, glitzy, tabloid-story presentation of the lives of a group of people working for a New York publishing firm. It mainly focuses on three young women who room together as their lives with the company play out. One seems to have no difficulty getting time off to go for acting auditions (Gregg played by Suzy Parker); another is a secretary looking for a husband (April played by Diane Baker); while the third is a young woman from Connecticut who starts off as a secretary but aspires to become an editor after her fiancé dumps her (Caroline played by Hope Lange). The various men in their lives include Brian Aherne as a senior editor with wandering hands, Stephen Boyd as a world-weary management type who spends most of the film with a drink in his hand, Robert Evans as a heel, and Louis Jourdan as a stage director. Joan Crawford has a good supporting role as a bitter book editor. As I mentioned above, this is a guilty-pleasure sort of movie. I was reminded of a somewhat embittered version of Three Coins in the Fountain without the happy ending. It's all pot-boiling melodrama, but it's so polished looking and craftily acted by the whole cast that you really get drawn into the story and interested in the characters despite yourself. The film makes New York look good, but women look bad with its emphasis on young women working simply as a stopgap until they can find a husband to make their lives complete. Only Caroline shows any gumption whatsoever; the rest allow their lives to be taken over by men with only one thing on their minds. The film benefits from excellent costume design and a pleasing title song, both appropriately nominated for Academy Awards although neither won. Fox's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of the CinemaScope film is another fine effort. It exhibits very good colour fidelity (colour originally by Deluxe) and provides a crisp transfer with good image detail. There are no edge effects and minimal source imperfections. A Dolby Digital 4.0 track provides a modest sense of envelopment, but little distinct directionality. English stereo and Spanish mono tracks are also provided as are English and Spanish sub-titles. Supplements consist of an informative though low-energy audio commentary by Rona Jaffe (author the title novel) and film historian Sylvia Stoddard, Movietone newsreel footage of the film's premiere, the theatrical trailer, and trailers for six other Fox releases. Recommended as a rental.

Anna and the King of Siam is a film of depth and complexity, and a real showcase for both Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. It is of course the original dramatic filming of the story of an English woman who is hired by an Asian king to run a school for his wives and children, based on the memoirs of Anna Leonowens and her experiences in Siam. The story was filmed again as the musical The King and I in 1956 with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner and as Anna and the King in 1999 with Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat. Although considered a little old for the part of Anna by Fox studio boss Darryl Zanuck (he initially wanted Dorothy McGuire for the part, but could not come to terms with David Selznick to whom McGuire was under contract), Irene Dunne carries the picture throughout its 128-minute running time. She is at times funny, stern, sad, authoritative, and even demurely submissive when needed as she controls the king virtually throughout. For Rex Harrison, the part of the king was his first American film role and he quickly established himself as a coming star. He plays the king with a sly irascibility that's quite convincing and there's real chemistry in the teaming of him and Dunne. Also in the fine cast are Linda Darnell, Lee J. Cobb, and Gale Sondergaard (who is magnificent as the king's first wife). This is by far the best of the story's three filmings. Fox's full frame DVD presentation is pretty nice looking although somewhat soft at times. Image detail is good. There is modest grain in evidence. The source material seems far from pristine, however, as speckling and some debris are present. Both mono and stereo tracks are offered but there's little significant difference. Dialogue is clear enough, but the film's fine score (by Bernard Herrmann) seems rather constrained. A Spanish mono track and English and Spanish sub-titles are also provided. Supplements include the A&E Biography Anna and the King: The Real Story of Anna Leonowens, Movietone newsreel footage of the Hollywood premiere, and the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

Nightmare Alley (1947)
The Street with No Name (1948)
House of Bamboo (1955)
(all released on DVD by Fox on June 7th, 2005)

Fox's second wave of Film Noir titles delivers three solid films including the seldom-seen (at least in recent years) Nightmare Alley. The others are The Street with No Name done in the semi-documentary style popularized by Fox in the late 1940s, and a Samuel Fuller remake of that film entitled House of Bamboo.

Nightmare AlleyThe Street with No NameHouse of Bamboo

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Nightmare Alley is an evocative story of the dark side of carnival side shows, one that is portrayed effectively through expressionistic lighting and an at-times eerie sound track. The story is that of Stan Carlisle who sees his opportunity to make a name for himself by working with Zeena, a mind-reader who used to be in the big time. Using her expertise, he begins to develop an act as a mentalist and then casts her aside when fame beckons. Stan bills himself as The Great Stanton and proceeds, with the help of his young wife Molly and later a crooked psychologist, to gain the trust and financial support of wealthy advocates of his supposed telepathic gifts. But when his wife balks at one particularly distasteful act, Stanton's new life begins to unravel and his fall is even greater than he could have predicted. Tyrone Power, in a masterly performance, stars as Carlisle in a role quite against type for him. His portrayal of Stan's rise as the smooth con artist is excellent, but his handling of Stan's decline is equally effective. Good support is provided by Joan Blondell as Zeena and Helen Walker as the psychologist who is presented as a completely amoral woman of self-centred ambition. Although the film telegraphs its resolution early on, its presentation of the road leading to the inevitable end is compelling and realistic. Edmund Goulding's direction is taut and makes as much out of the film's source material as the Production Code of the time would allow. Fox's DVD presentation conveys the film's dark content very effectively, retaining sufficient grain to accentuate its raw nature. The image is fairly crisp with decent image detail, although a few scenes seem even darker than they should be. The mono sound is in good shape and Fox supplements it with a stereo version that offers little discernible improvement. English and Spanish subtitles are also provided. The chief supplement is an audio commentary by film historians and noir experts James Ursini and Alain Silver. They deliver an entertaining and informative track, as they do on the other two films in this latest noir wave. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer as well as trailers for five other films in Fox's Film Noir Series (Laura, Panic in the Streets, The Street with No Name, House of Bamboo, and The Dark Corner). Highly recommended.

The Street with No Name is somewhat of a police procedural in which the inner workings of the FBI are purportedly shown in support of the resolution of one of its case files. It is somewhat of a follow-up stylistically and thematically to 1945's The House on 92nd Street. FBI agent Gene Cordell is sent undercover by FBI Inspector Briggs to infiltrate the gang of crime-boss Alec Stiles who is believed to be responsible for the seemingly unconnected murders of a housewife and a bank guard. Ingratiating himself with Stiles, Cordell manages to gather the evidence he needs, but Stiles has an informant inside the local police force that allows him to become aware of Cordell's real intent. Stiles comes up with a plan that will rid him of Cordell during a robbery, but things unravel and Stiles takes flight with the FBI in pursuit. Much of the film leans on familiar characterizations (Mark Stevens as the undercover cop, Lloyd Nolan as Briggs, John McIntyre as another FBI undercover man, Ed Begley as the local police chief) that contribute to the effectiveness of the film's semi-documentary approach. The noir conventions are addressed by some good location shooting, mainly in and around Los Angeles, and the presence of Richard Widmark as Stiles. Widmark delivers another portrayal of a psychotic lowlife reminiscent of his Tommy Udo character in Kiss of Death. The full screen presentation (correctly framed) is in good shape with a clear image, good shadow detail, some modest grain, and only minor speckling present. The mono sound track is clear and is supplemented with English and Spanish sub-titles. English stereo and Spanish mono tracks are also provided. The supplements include audio commentary by James Ursini and Alain Silver, the film's theatrical trailer, and trailers for other Fox Film Noir titles (Laura, Call Northside 777, Panic in the Streets, and House of Bamboo). Recommended.

The story line of The Street with No Name is basically retained in Samuel Fuller's 1955 remake, House of Bamboo, but gains substantially from its Japanese setting - an exotic one to North American audiences. The interesting angle here is the presentation of the American occupation of Japan as not being merely a military one but an opportunity for American criminals to set up operations there as well. The crime kingpin this time is one Sandy Dawson who employs ex-GIs in his gang and the undercover man is military sergeant Eddie Kenner who passes himself off as a close friend of a gang member who was killed. Complicating Kenner's task is his increasing attraction to the slain gang member's wife, Mariko. The film dispenses with the semi-documentary approach and reduces the emphasis on police procedures, presenting itself more as a straight drama. Film noir icon Robert Ryan plays Dawson and Robert Stack who had by that time matured into a very interesting leading man plays Kenner. Although filmed in colour, House of Bamboo attains its noir sensibilities through its complex interplay of hetero- and homosexual attraction, and the isolation of the main characters in a strange land. Samuel Fuller's characteristic long takes, leading camera movement, and abruptly staged and dramatically filmed scenes of violence are all in evidence. Fox presents the CinemaScope film on DVD in a nice 2.55:1 anamorphic transfer. Though sporting some speckles and the odd scratch, the colour fidelity is good and the image is quite crisp for the most part. Modest grain is in evidence. A Dolby Digital 4.0 track offers some very subtle surround effects but for the most part acts as a stereo mix with some distinct directionality evident. French and Spanish mono tracks and English and Spanish subtitles are also provided. Supplements consist of another Ursini/Silver commentary, theatrical trailers in English and Spanish, Movietone newsreel footage (without sound) behind the scenes on the Fox lot and of the cast disembarking in Japan, and trailers for other Fox Film Noir titles (Call Northside 777, Laura, Panic in the Streets, and The Street with No Name). Recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
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