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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Western Round-Up and New Announcements (Continued)


One of the last Mascot serials, The Phantom Empire (1935), has received a nice digital clean-up from VCI and is now presented in a nice two-disc effort. Long in the public domain, the 12-chapter serial is an interesting blend of western and science fiction.

The Phantom Empire

Gene plays the owner of a ranch who can only retain control by living up to a radio contract that calls for him to broadcast a program from the ranch each afternoon. Complicating things is the presence of radium on the ranch which attracts unscrupulous speculators and even more importantly the discovery of the underground civilization of Murania whose queen is intent on retaining her world's secrecy and her control over it. Viewers will find some crude special effects here, particularly some recycled tin robots, but the serial's blending of genres is infectiously entertaining. In his first starring role, Gene Autry is quite adequate, his charisma showing why he would become one of the best B western heroes, even though his inexperience is evident at times here. The serial's action sequences are well-handled reflecting Mascot's and directors Otto Brower and B. Reeves Eason's extensive experience in the serial field. The serial also benefits from the presence of young veteran Frankie Darro. Smiley Burnette, here billed as Lester Burnette, is also around for comedy support. VCI's work on the serial is very welcome; it certainly looks better than any previous version that I've seen. Image detail is quite good and sharpness is pretty good overall. There are still some contrast issues and scratches and speckles, but nothing to detract from one's enjoyment. The mono sound is quite decent with little hiss evident. Supplements include a brief featurette on the making of the serial, the theatrical trailer, a Gene Autry text biography, a photo gallery, a 7-minute musical excerpt featuring Autry and Gabby Hayes from the feature film In Old Santa Fe, and the complete 1937 Republic Autry feature Boots and Saddles. The latter looks quite decent on DVD and is a very pleasing entertainment taking advantage of shooting at Lone Pine, a more relaxed-looking Gene Autry, and a welcome appearance of Gordon Elliott (before his "Wild Bill" days) as a heavy. This new Special Edition DVD of The Phantom Empire is recommended.

The Scarlet Horseman

Much less delectable is a Universal serial, The Scarlet Horseman, available on DVD from Hermitage Hill. The 13-chapter serial has been spread over three discs and includes a photo gallery and a biography of lead female player Virginia Christine (also later known as "Mrs. Olsen" of coffee commercial fame). Made in 1946 and thus one of the last three serials Universal made (the company left the serial arena after that year), it was one of the many Universal western serials with an Indian angle to the plot, thus allowing the company to recycle its Indian stock footage yet again. The Scarlet Horseman of the title is a legendary champion of the Comanches whose identity is assumed by a Texas undercover agent trying to quell Indian uprisings being fomented by a traitor intent on the partitioning of Texas. In the resurrected guise, our hero seems to spend a lot of his riding time blowing some sort of whistle or kazoo; it's never really clear why. Overall, the program is a dispiriting farewell to western serials for Universal with about the only inspiration residing in the name of one of the bad guys - Zero Quick. Though certainly not as discouraging as some of the 1950s serials from Columbia and even Republic, it still lacks much spark. The cast is prosaic at best, headed by such "luminaries" as Paul Guilfoyle and Peter Cookson. Still, a few familiar faces show up, such as Cy Kendall, Jack Ingram, and Edmund Cobb, and we do get Milburn Stone ("Doc" in Gunsmoke) providing narration. The chapter endings are typically innocuous for a Universal serial product. The serial, digitally transferred from an original print, looks quite workable on the DVDs, although it is far from top-notch. The image is frequently soft although detail is quite acceptable. Scratches and speckling are evident, but not distracting. The mono sound is fine.

The New Maverick

It seems hard to believe that there isn't a market for season sets of one of the best western TV series of the late 1950s/early 1960s - Maverick. The combination of action, connivance, and humour provided by James Garner and Jack Kelly as gamblers Bret and Bart Maverick was a winning one. We've been tantalized by a best-of disc from Warner Bros. several years ago - one issued at the same time as similar ones for the TV series Cheyenne and F Troop. The latter two each got at least one season set issued as a result, but not Maverick. Now finally comes more Maverick from Warners, but once again it's not what we want. This time it's The New Maverick - the 1978 TV pilot for the ill-fated TV series of the same title. Both Garner and Kelly are back supporting Charles Frank who plays young cousin Ben - the new Maverick of the film's title. It seems there's a reward to be had for arranging the return of some stolen guns and that attracts the boys' attention. The only problem is that they're not the only ones interested. Ho, hum, you might say and you'd be right. Now I like a good old simple western; the standardized plots don't bother me. But apparently the cast here doesn't agree. They go through the motions and the result is a tedious 92 minutes indeed. Even the pleasure of seeing Garner back in Maverick harness quickly palls, and Jack Kelly is kept off the screen for much of the running time for some inexplicable reason. As for Charles Frank, his performance here is pallid although it doesn't seem to have affected his career as he was very busy on television over the succeeding two decades. About all one can say for this release is that it looks very good. The full frame image looks very clean and bright and offers good colour fidelity. The mono sound is fine. There are no supplements.

Tom Selleck Western Collection

A much more welcome offering from Warner Bros. is the Tom Selleck Western Collection. We have TNT to thank in large measure for continuing to keep the western alive over the past decade or so. It's been responsible for the production of a series of generally superior westerns starring the likes of Selleck and Sam Elliott that have aired on the station and occasionally had a theatrical release. Three such productions (all previously released separately on DVD) are included in this new box set - Last Stand at Saber River (1997), Crossfire Trail (2001), and Monte Walsh (2002). This is a tremendous package of western entertainment featuring three superb characterizations by Selleck. All benefit from being based on strong source material - novels by Elmore Leonard, Louis L'Amour and Jack Schaefer respectively. Monte Walsh is the best film of the bunch, but the others aren't far behind, especially Crossfire Trail which is just a good old fashioned western tale (a cowboy fulfils a promise to a dying man to look after his Wyoming ranch and his widow, complicated by a local businessman who has his own eye on both property and wife - Mark Harmon in a juicy portrayal) brimming with excellent attention to period detail and the judicious use of southern Alberta exteriors. Monte Walsh is a longer and more introspective film focusing on the waning days of the cowboy. It was previously filmed to good effect in 1970 with Lee Marvin in the title role, but Selleck's version is the equal of that one. Keith Carradine provides strong support and the film is directed with style and empathy for the material by Simon Wincer (also director of Lonesome Dove). Last Stand at Saber River is also a fairly conventional western, but as with Crossfire Trail, it's acted with conviction and respect for the genre and is nicely filmed by director Dick Lowry. The story finds Selleck as ex-Confederate Paul Cable trying to return to his Arizona ranch life after the Civil War but finding that he must first deal with Union sympathizers who have taken over in his absence. Suzy Amis delivers an effective portrayal as Selleck's strong-willed wife, and Keith and David Carradine do good work as the Unionists, but once again it's Selleck who puts the whole package over with his strong and slightly understated performance. There's some good action, well-developed characters, and many of the requisite western set-pieces. Most welcome is the film's attention to period detail and fine location shooting too. All three films are presented on DVD in their original aspect ratios - that being 1.78:1 for both Monte Walsh and Crossfire Trail, and 1. 33:1 for Last Stand at Saber River. Monte Walsh and Crossfire Trail offer very strong-looking transfers - sharp, nicely detailed, with excellent colour fidelity. Last Stand at Saber River lags a little behind with more muted colours at times and some scratches and debris. All three films deliver pleasing, fairly dynamic sound with little to choose between them. They all sound like good stereo tracks (which two of them are - the other, Monte Walsh, offers Dolby 5.1 surround). The only supplements are some cast and crew bios/filmographies, and trailers for two other TNT westerns. Three fine western entertainments for $20 list - what's not to like? Highly recommended.


Western Release News

In this section, I've listed announcements of westerns coming to DVD that were originally released theatrically in the past 35-odd years. Westerns announced for DVD that were originally released theatrically before the early 1970s continue to be included in the Classic New Announcements section below this one. The western announcements data base has been updated accordingly and also reflects a few other releases of more recent westerns announced over the past couple of months but not highlighted in this section of the column.

Genius Products will have a new two-disc version of Lonesome Dove (1989) for release on both standard DVD and Blu-ray on August 5th. The episodes have been digitally remastered and will be presented in both widescreen and Dolby 5.1 sound. Bonus material will include a new 50-minute making-of documentary, new and original interviews with the director and cast, photo gallery and apparently only on the Blu-ray version, a full-length director audio commentary. There's no indication whether the original full frame image will also be made available.

Available on June 3rd from RHI Entertainment will be the new western Prairie Fever (2008, with Kevin Sorbo and Lance Henriksen).

Warner Bros. will offer Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider (1985) on Blu-ray on August 26th - a further reminder that this date is going to be big for western fans as far as Warners is concerned. Already scheduled are releases of How the West Was Won in both standard DVD and Blu-ray (Smilebox presentation of the Cinerama film), and standard DVD releases of Errol Flynn: The Warner Western Collection (4 films) and Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection (6 films). See my previous column for details.


New Announcements

Please note that the classic release announcements data base has been updated to reflect the following new announcements - a fairly short list since it's been only two weeks since the last update.

As reported at tvshowsondvd.com, The Donna Reed Show is coming to DVD courtesy of Arts Alliance America. There are no firm details yet available, but it does appear that we should see a release sometime in the fourth quarter of this year.

Criterion's August offerings are highlighted by Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room (1949, with David Farrar and Jack Hawkins), coming on the 19th. The disc will feature audio commentary by film scholar Charles Barr and a new video interview with cinematographer Chris Challis. Coming on the same date is Twenty-Four Eyes (1954, directed by Keisuke Kinoshita). Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko includes Wings (1966) along with The Ascent (1977), due on August 12th, while Salo (1975, Pier Palo Pasolini) will be re-released in a two-disc set with a new transfer on August 26th. In its latest newsletter, Criterion provides a very strong hint that we can expect several Max Ophuls films this coming fall, including The Earrings of Madame De... (1953).

Flicker Alley has now finalized the July release of Perils of the New Land (formerly Hardships of the New Land) for the 15th. The release includes two films, Traffic in Souls (1913) and The Italian (1915).

Fox Home Video, according to DVD Savant, is planning the release of an F.W. Murnau/Frank Borzage box set for sometime around Christmas. Titles to be included (all from the 1925-1930 period) will be three from Murnau - Sunrise, Four Devils, and City Girl - and eight from Borzage - Lazybones, Seventh Heaven, Street Angel, The River (fragments), Lucky Star, They Had to See Paris, Song O' My Heart, and Liliom. There are no further details yet available. Assuming this comes to pass, Fox continues to astound with its commitment to making some very rare titles available.

Grapevine Video's new releases for May include: David Copperfield (1913, one of the earliest British feature-length films); Fighting Jack (1926, Bill Bailey western); Orchids and Ermine (1927, with Colleen Moore and Mickey Rooney's first film appearance); Salambo (1914, early Italian epic); When the Clouds Roll By (1919, with Douglas Fairbanks); High Gear/Roaring Roads (1933/1935 - two car racing films); and Sea Devils/Poppin' the Cork (1931/1933, with Molly O'Day/Milton Berle).

Kino has announced the July 29th release of two discs of films directed by Victor Sjostrom: The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) accompanied by a 1981 documentary on Sjostrom's life and the double bill A Man There Was (1917)/Ingeborg Holm (1913).

An Eye for an Eye (1966, western with Robert Lansing and Patrick Wayne) is coming from Lionsgate on June 3rd although release details suggest it's being presented full frame. The company will also release an early Steve McQueen film, Never Love a Stranger (1958, Allied Artists, also with John Drew Barrymore and Nita Milan), on August 19th.

MGM has delayed its 40th Anniversary release of Casino Royale from June 3rd to sometime in September.

Next in the Serial Squadron's plans are releases of the serials The Masked Rider (1919), The Devil Horse (1932), Last of the Mohicans (1932), and The Phantom Creeps: Ultimate Edition (1939). Check the website (serialsquadron.com) for news on release timing as it becomes available. Some of the Serial Squadron Product is also released on DVD by Hermitage Hill.

Shout! Factory has announced the release of a four-disc set of That Girl: Season Four (1969-70, starring Marlo Thomas) for August 12th.

Televista offers the spaghetti western Four Dollars of Revenge (1966) for release on June 3rd.

Warner Bros. will release Cool Hand Luke: Deluxe Edition on September 9th on both DVD and Blu-ray. The film has been newly remastered and will be accompanied by a new featurette, "A Natural-Born World-Shaker: The Making of Cool Hand Luke"; audio commentary by Paul Newman biographer Eric Lax; and the original trailer. Following on September 16th will be The Busby Berkeley Collection: Volume 2. It will contain four films (also available individually), all according to the press release restored from the original camera negative: Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936), Gold Diggers in Paris (1938), Hollywood Hotel (1937), and Varsity Show (1937) - all not only new to DVD but to home video in any format. Each title will be accompanied by a selection of shorts, a cartoon, and the theatrical trailer. Gold Diggers of 1937 will also include the 1997 documentary Busby Berkeley: Going Through the Roof. Finally, in a nice surprise, rounding out a great month for Warner classic fans will be the release on September 23rd of Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection: Volume 4. It will include five films - The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), The Little Giant (1933), Larceny, Inc. (1942), Invisible Stripes (1939), and Kid Galahad (1937). That's four Edward G. Robinsons, Three Humphrey Bogarts, and one George Raft. Bette Davis fans also get a little joy too. Each film is accompanied by an audio commentary and a collection of shorts, newsreels, cartoons, and trailers. Rounding out the set is a sixth disc containing the new feature length documentary, Public Enemies: The Golden Age of the Gangster Film, supplemented by 4 Warner Bros. cartoons. Kid Galahad is apparently the only title that will also be available separately from the box set.

Once again, that's it for now. I'll return again soon.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com
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