|Classic Reviews Round-Up #46 and New Announcements
Welcome to the latest edition of Classic Coming Attractions. This outing brings reviews of four box sets of musicals (three from Warner Bros. - The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection, Frank Sinatra: The Early Years, Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory: Volume Three - and one from Fox - The Carmen Miranda Collection) and seven single-title releases (The Fall of the Roman Empire from Weinstein, Fanny from Image, and Day of the Outlaw, The Gunfight at Dodge City, Morning Departure, The One That Got Away, and Carve Her Name with Pride from MGM). As usual I also run down the latest announcements of forthcoming classic titles. Note that the classics release database has been updated to reflect the latest announcements.
Eight of Frank Sinatra's films from the 1940s have been gathered together in two box sets from Warner Bros. The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection offers three fine MGM musicals from the 1945-1949 period, all of which were Technicolor productions - Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, and On the Town. The second set - Frank Sinatra: The Early Years - contains three RKO pictures (Higher and Higher, Step Lively, and Double Dynamite) and two MGM ones (It Happened in Brooklyn and The Kissing Bandit).
For those unfamiliar with Frank''s early film career, he appeared in several RKO productions in the early 1940s and eventually signed a seven year contract with the studio in 1944 after the success of Step Lively, but that contract was acquired by MGM soon after. During the course of the MGM years, Frank did return to RKO in 1948 on a loan-out basis (for the unsuccessful The Miracle of the Bells and for Double Dynamite which looked so unpromising that RKO shelved its release until 1951). Let's deal with The Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly Collection first as it contains the three best-known films of this period of Sinatra's career and also three titles that have already appeared on DVD. Anchors Aweigh is the film in which Gene Kelly really hit his stride as a unique song and dance man. The highlight is the dance routine with MGM cartoon character Jerry the Mouse (of Tom and Jerry fame) - a blend of live action and animation not before accomplished. Sinatra is an effective co-star, holding his own with Kelly in the dance sequences (one in which the pair leap from bed to bed in a dormitory will be familiar to many), and also handling a number of songs nicely ("I Fall in Love Too Easily" is the best of them). Kathryn Grayson appears in her first of four films with Sinatra. Take Me Out to the Ball Game is a pleasant musical about a couple of vaudeville performers who spend their summers playing for a baseball team, but overall it's the least of the trio in this box set. Technically, it's very accomplished with Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen directing the musical sequences, although overall directorial credit went to Busby Berkeley (his last such credit). Other than the title tune, however, the songs are not particularly memorable which ultimately means that Sinatra is not particularly so either. On the Town is the best film in the set. It's the musical evocation of three sailors' 24-hour shore leave in New York, with Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin playing the three sailors while Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, and Ann Miller are their romantic counterparts. The film is an exuberant and infectious delight, highlighted by on-location shooting, the upbeat theme music of the film - "New York, New York", and the rendition of "On the Town" sung by the three couples as they dance down one of the city's main streets. Sinatra shows himself to be an accomplished musical performer in all facets in this film and it was clear that his potential was greater still. In 1949 at least, with On the Town and Take Me Out to the Ball Game, he was getting good roles too. It was somewhat surprising then that he wanted out of his MGM contract after this film - a wish that MGM granted leading to a rather fallow period in Sinatra's career. On DVD, these three films look fine, but then that's how they looked five years or more ago when first released on DVD. What we have here is the same transfers and disc content as the first release. The only difference is in the cover art and the use of keep cases rather than snappers. All three films are presented full frame as originally released. Generally, the three films lack the vibrancy of colour we've come to expect from Warners' work on its MGM titles, but image sharpness is fairly good and the colours appear accurate if somewhat muted. Anchors Aweigh and Take Me Out to the Ball Game fair best of the trio. The mono sound on all three is typically good for Warner releases. The only supplements of consequence are two deleted musical numbers from Take Me Out to the Ball Game and a brief excerpt from the documentary MGM: When the Lion Roars concerning Anchors Aweigh's animation sequence. Those who already have these titles obviously need not upgrade; for those who don't, this set is recommended. Each title is also available separately.
There are three hits and two misses in Frank Sinatra: The Early Years, the hits being Higher and Higher, Step Lively, and It Happened in Brooklyn while the misses are The Kissing Bandit and Double Dynamite.
Higher and Higher and Step Lively (a remake of Room Service in which the Marx Bros. starred) have certain similarities. Both are based on Broadway plays and both offer solid roles for Sinatra - one in which he basically plays himself as the boy-next-door to a scullery maid who's posing as a bankrupt millionaire's daughter, and the other as a playwright whose show is in jeopardy due to the lack of financial backing. Sinatra has a number of good sings in each film and fans won't be disappointed by his work. Both films also offer solid supporting players including some intriguing casting for musicals. Step Lively features the likes of George Murphy, Adolph Menjou, Gloria De Haven, Walter Slezak, and Eugene Pallette, but Higher and Higher is particularly interesting in this respect with the likes of Leon Errol, Victor Borge, Mary Wickes, Mel Torme, Dooley Wilson, Jack Haley, and Barbara Hale all in evidence and all at some point both singing and dancing. It Happened in Brooklyn is the most polished (reflecting MGM's musical production expertise) and entertaining of the bunch, with Sinatra seeming quite relaxed in his role of a GI returning to his native Brooklyn and trying to find a job and romance. This is the film in which he and Jimmy Durante perform the engaging number "The Song's Gotta Come from the Heart" (another song very recognizable from That's Entertainment). Frank also has the wonderful ballad "Time After Time". Kathryn Grayson and Peter Lawford are along in pleasing supporting roles. On the negative side of the ledger, The Kissing Bandit offers Sinatra looking ridiculous throughout as a bandit's son reluctantly roped into taking over where his father left off by one of his father's former cohorts. The film certainly looks lush in Technicolor, but its songs are not memorable and one can imagine that Sinatra was embarrassed by the whole thing. Only a specialty number featuring Ricardo Montalban, Ann Miller, and Cyd Charisse stirs much interest. In Double Dynamite, Sinatra (as a bank teller whose windfall on a tip from a bookie gets him in hot water) co-stars with Groucho Marx and Jane Russell, but only Groucho makes much of an impact. Russell is more demur than dynamite (as implied by the title) and Frank's songs don't linger in the mind despite "It's Only Money" being the film's originally-intended title. Warners has essentially treated this release as a budget one. None of the titles has any supplements nor even any scene selections, although chapter stops are included. The MGM features are the best looking of the bunch. The Kissing Bandit's colour is bright and virtually free of any registration issues. It Happened in Brooklyn offers a clean sharp image with fine contrast. The RKO features are all a little rougher with noticeable scratches and speckles although image clarity and contrast are all quite decent. Step Lively is marginally the weakest of the bunch. The mono sound on all is in good shape. The box set is an easy recommendation for Sinatra fans, but others should look to a rental. Each title is also available separately.
Warner Bros. has gone all out with Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory: Volume 3, this time including nine features in the six-disc set (all packaged in slim cases). Just about every MGM musical star you can think of (with the exception of Fred Astaire) is represented among these films either in starring, supporting, or cameo roles. Three high profile features are each given separate discs - Hit the Deck, Kismet, and Deep in My Heart - while six other more standard titles are delivered on three double feature discs - Broadway Melody of 1936/Broadway Melody of 1938, Born to Dance/Lady Be Good, and Nancy Goes to Rio/Two Weeks with Love.
I know everyone will have their own particular favorites among these, so there's no point in being dogmatic about which are the best titles. Hit the Deck (Tony Martin, Vic Damone, and Russ Tamblyn as sailors on leave; paired with Jane Powell, Debbie Reynolds, and Ann Miller), Deep in My Heart (Jose Ferrer in a biopic of Sigmund Romberg, featuring a raft of cameos including Gene Kelly and his brother Fred Kelly), both the Broadway Melody titles (both with Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor; Judy Garland also in the 1938 one), Lady Be Good (Eleanor Powell and Ann Sothern), and Nancy Goes to Rio (Jane Powell and Ann Sothern, with a taste of Carmen Miranda) give me the most pleasure due to their combination of music, story, and performers I particularly admire. Of the colour features, Deep in My Heart (1.85:1 anamorphic, Eastman Color, print by Technicolor) and Nancy Goes to Rio (full frame, three-strip Technicolor) look the best with vibrant accurate colour and excellent image detail. Not far behind are Kismet and Hit the Deck, both sporting 2.55:1 anamorphic transfers reflective of their CinemaScope origins. Two Weeks with Love (full frame, three-strip Technicolor) is the weakest of the colour titles with color intensity (mainly) and registration (secondary) issues apparent. Of the black and white films, Lady Be Good and Broadway Melody of 1936 both offer sharp images with good image detail and pleasing contrast. Born to Dance and Broadway Melody of 1938 both look a little ragged at times. Film grain is apparent on all titles. All the double feature titles have mono tracks that are typically fine Warner efforts - clear and as dynamic as one could expect from such sources. Each of Hit the Deck, Kismet, and Deep in My Heart have five channel Dolby surround mixes that are quite appealing. Surround effects are limited, but all offer increased presence, particularly Deep in My Heart which comes close to replicating its fine laserdisc audio experience. The supplements are numerous with each title getting at least a vintage short, cartoon, and theatrical trailer. Audio-only supplements (many of them radio broadcasts) are present on many of the discs. Lengthier featurettes include an excellent Private Screenings with Jane Powell (with Robert Osborne doing the interviewing) and excerpts from The MGM Parade (hosted by George Murphy). Musical outtakes (some audio only) accompany Kismet, Hit the Deck, Lady Be Good, and Deep in My Heart. Highly recommended.
Not to be outdone by Warners on the musical front, Fox has recently given us The Carmen Miranda Collection, a five disc set including The Gang's All Here (1943), Greenwich Village (1944), Something for the Boys (1944), If I'm Lucky (1946), and Doll Face (1946).
The first three are three-strip Technicolor films while the other two are in black and white. Miranda appeared in 14 films during her American film career and with this set and the forthcoming second Alice Faye set, amazingly all of those films with the exception of Springtime in the Rockies are available on DVD. The appearance of The Gang's All Here on this set reflects Fox's efforts to address the disappointment resulting from the poor transfer that characterized the film's first DVD release. In that respect I'm happy to report that the film looks much better now, with colours significantly more vibrant and accurate and now approaching the lushness of the laserdisc version. All is not quite perfect as the image does look a little dark at times with shadow detail correspondingly muted, but overall I suspect most people will be quite content at the improvements. The disc retains all the supplementary content that appeared on the first release. Greenwich Village is the set's next best thing - a pleasing tale of a composer (Don Ameche) from out of town who visits Greenwich Village looking for recognition for his new concerto, but getting it from a different source (Vivian Blaine and William Bendix) than he'd hoped. Carmen Miranda really shines in this one with some of her typically loopy comic support as well as several enjoyable musical numbers. The unforgettable song "Whispering" is the film's musical highlight and is performed twice by Vivian Blaine. Fox has done a superb job with the DVD transfer, providing a lush image with very vibrant colour and essentially devoid of any registration issues. The mono sound is fully satisfactory. The only supplement is a set of four still photo galleries. Something for the Boys shares Greenwich Village's excellence in terms of DVD image. Its story about a dilapidated southern plantation being turned into a home for army wives is a somewhat lesser entertainment in terms of spirit of exuberance, but it's hard to complain with some nice Cole Porter songs, Vivian Blaine much in evidence, and Phil Silvers and Perry Como also around to entertain. The disc sports a new four-part 80-minute-plus documentary on Carmen Miranda that's well worth watching. Neither Doll Face nor If I'm Lucky are quite in the same league as the other three titles. Both feature Vivian Blaine, Perry Como, and Miranda all in fine form, but dealing with lesser material both musically and story-wise, the latter particularly in the case of If I'm Lucky. The black and white transfers are both good though with crisp images and very fine contrast. Both offer isolated score tracks along with still galleries and theatrical trailers, and Doll Face has a deleted scene. The Carmen Miranda Collection is a typically fine example of Fox's efforts on its classic titles and is easily recommended.
Producer Samuel Bronston's four big epics of the early 1960s - El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Circus World, and 55 Days at Peking - have been long sought after in decent transfers by collectors, and the Weinstein Company is now attempting to fill that void with Limited Collector's Editions being issued under the company's Miriam Collection imprint. El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire are the two titles so far released.
The Fall of the Roman Empire is a very ambitious retelling (mainly based on fact, with some fictional characters and events) of the second century events relating to the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius and the succession by subterfuge of his son Commodus (rather than Livius Metellus, a military Tribune whom Aurelius had raised as a son and preferred as a successor). Commodus's love of power and lack of virtue undid much of the good will widely known under Aurelius - to the extent that this period is usually regarded as signaling the Empire's descent into ultimate oblivion. To dramatize these events, Bronston came up with one of the most impressive international casts ever assembled, including Stephen Boyd, Christopher Plummer, Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren, James Mason, John Ireland, Mel Ferrer, Omar Sharif, and Anthony Quayle. All had roles of substance rather than the cameos that such casts often signaled. Particularly noteworthy are Boyd (replacing Charlton Heston who had declined the role) as Metellus and Plummer as Commodus - the two characters providing the focus of the film's main conflicts throughout. Alec Guinness provides a thoughtful interpretation of Aurelius. The film runs over three hours in length including an intermission, but never drags due to director Anthony Mann's ability to deploy his large cast effectively in a succession of varied and arresting set pieces. Memorable are the many scenes in the snow during the northern campaign against the Germanic Barbarians; the chariot duel between Metellus and Commodus (well choreographed by Yakima Canutt in an impressive but unsuccessful attempt by Bronston to have something to equal the chariot race from Ben-Hur); the battle scenes of the eastern campaign led by Metellus; and the gigantic sets of ancient Rome (created on 250 acres of Spanish countryside and including full buildings both inside and out, not just facades). These, along with the attention to detail in all the sets and costumes, is striking and were there any holes in the screenplay by Ben Barzman, Basilio Franchina, and Philip Yordan, they would more than take up the slack. Fortunately, that is not the case as we are treated to an intelligent and thoughtful script that is a pleasure to hear spoken in the hands of so many fine actors. Matching the film's excellence is the DVD treatment here accorded by Weinstein. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is a pleasure to behold on the whole. Generally sharp, clean, and nicely detailed, it catches both the subdued colouring of the film's presentation of the northern campaign and the bright pageantry of Rome well, but does appear to overcook skin tones at times. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a definite plus, offering fine separation and even some effective surround moments. The chief beneficiary is Dimitri Tiomkin's expansive and memorable score- one that becomes more impressive with successive viewings of the film. The Limited Collector's Edition comes with three discs packaged in a sturdy, classy-looking box. The first two offer the film almost equally spread over them supplemented with an interesting if somewhat sporadic audio commentary by Bill Bronston (son of Samuel) and Mel Martin (Bronston biographer), a good new making-of documentary, featurettes on the historical facts and Hollywood's version of them, a good featurette on Dimitri Tiomkin, a vintage promotional featurette, and the theatrical trailer. The third disc contains three vintage Encyclopedia Britannia educational films about ancient Rome, all originally shot on The Fall of the Roman Empire's massive sets. Also included in the box are six postcard stills and a reproduction of the souvenir book originally issued at the time of the film's release. Highly recommended.
Before his screenwriting efforts for El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, Philip Yordan was well known for some of the more interesting westerns of the 1950s - titles such as The Bravados, The Man from Laramie, Broken Lance, and Johnny Guitar. A somewhat lesser-known western of his was 1959's Day of the Outlaw, a tale whose strength was not Yordan's script despite its somewhat offbeat wintry setting (well captured in black and white by cinematographer Russell Harlan), but its cast and direction.
Most noteworthy is Robert Ryan who stars as a rancher in conflict with the local homesteaders. A confrontation between the two sides is interrupted by the arrival of an outlaw gang who terrorize the town until Ryan offers to lead the gang through the adjacent mountains as a means of evading their pursuers. Ryan's intense persona is perfectly suited to these sorts of strong, lonely men. Here he has a strong foil in Burl Ives' outlaw leader. Most of the rest of the characters, whether gang members or townspeople, are sketched in at best so that the likes of strong character actors such as Nehemiah Persoff, Elisha Cook Jr., and Jack Lambert don't make much of an impression. (Those who liked Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, however, may wish to note his brother Dave's good casting as a sympathetic gang member here.) Director André De Toth builds the story's tension well, creating a fatalistic almost noir-like atmosphere particularly enhanced by the film's final third in the deep snow of the mountains. MGM presents the United Artists release in a nice 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that is quite sharp and offers superior contrast. The mono sound is quite decent. There are no supplements. Recommended.