|Classic Reviews Round-Up #62 and New Announcements
Welcome to the latest edition of Classic Coming Attractions.
I've got the usual package of reviews (13 in all) and new release announcements for you, with the new announcements database updated accordingly. The DVD reviews this time include: Escape and Cry Havoc! from the Warner Archive; the Louis L'Amour Western Collection from Warner Bros., British Film Noir (Twilight Women/The Slasher) from VCI; Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II and The Three Stooges Collection: Volume 8 from Sony; Bing Crosby: The Television Specials - Volume One from Infinity Entertainment; The Barbara Stanwyck Collection from Universal; The Virginian: The Complete First Season from Timeless Media; The Italian Straw Hat from Flicker Alley; and The Showdown from Alliance Canada. There are also two Blu-ray reviews - A Star Is Born from Warner Bros. and Spartacus from Universal.
Regarding the new announcements, I've fallen behind on my monitoring of non-Region 1 classic releases, but hope to get back on track for the next column. In the meantime, I do appreciate the non-Region-1 release notices that I've received from readers and hope that my current lack of follow-up won't deter you from continuing to keep me apprised of such information.
I hope you'll all enjoy this latest edition of the column.
The year 1940 was Robert Taylor's best in his career to that point. He starred in three war-themed films - Flight Command, Waterloo Bridge, and Escape - that showcased a comfort level in action roles as well as a maturing ability as a dramatic actor.
Waterloo Bridge was much the best of the three (and Taylor acknowledged that it was his favourite film of all he appeared in during his long career). Escape had much to recommend it too and we can now judge for ourselves courtesy of its availability through the Warner Archive. In Escape, based on Ethel Vance's novel of the same title, Taylor plays an American who comes to pre-war Germany to find his missing mother (Alla Nazimova), an actress arrested by the Nazis. Taylor eventually learns of his mother's whereabouts and that she is to be executed. He mounts a rescue attempt with the help of a sympathetic prison doctor (Philip Dorn) and a German aristocrat's American widow (Norma Shearer) who runs a girls' school and enjoys the protection of a German general (Conrad Veidt). The film's chief strong points are its excellent MGM production values and the compelling work of both Nazimova and Shearer in their roles. Taylor is fine, but his efforts are compromised by a script that makes his character and most of his German adversaries look somewhat fatuous at times. (The exception to the latter is Conrad Veidt who gives a typically sinister but believable performance.) Aside from this failing, the script demonstrates strong plotting that yields a suspenseful ride generally worth experiencing. The Warner Archive's full frame transfer is quite good-looking. It's crisp for the most part and offers good contrast on all but a few sequences. Shadow detail in some of the night-time scenes is a little lacking. There are plenty of speckles and the occasional scratch, but they are never distracting. The mono sound is in good shape. There are no supplements. The film is one of the first Archive batch to offer poster art on the box cover and the results are a distinct improvement over the previous generic look. Recommended.
1943's Cry 'Havoc' was a typically effective war propaganda film from MGM. It sports an all-female credited cast in a tale of Bataan Peninsula in the early days of the war. Margaret Sullavan portrays an overworked military hospital nurse guiding an inexperienced staff of civilian volunteers who try to treat American and Filipino soldiers wounded in battle with advancing Japanese troops.
The focus of the film is on the relationships between the women - situations heightened by the difficult work conditions (rampant malaria, lack of medical supplies, frequent bombardment) and the wide range of backgrounds they have, from burlesque queen (Joan Blondell) to waitress (Ann Sothern), Southern belle, socialite, teacher, and more. The film is 97 minutes long, but seems shorter due to the expertise of the fine ensemble cast. Sullavan is superb as usual, but virtually everyone else shines too (from the above-the-title-billed Blondell and Sothern) to the likes of reliable Marsha Hunt, Ella Raines, and Frances Gifford. Fay Bainter as the overall commanding officer is quietly effective as well. Much of the film is restricted to the dug-out accommodation (reflecting the film's stage origins) where the nurses live and the resulting claustrophobic feel effectively heightens the reality of the characters' interactions. Male faces in the film are transitory at best, but noticeable are Richard Crane, William Bishop, and Robert Mitchum (then trying to break in to film). Though Americans at the time would have been aware of the results of the Bataan campaign, the film's ending leaves the actual nurses' fate up in the air - capture certainly, but beyond that? There's a good double-bill to be made with Cry 'Havoc' and Paramount's So Proudly We Hail (another film with similar subject matter but a more glossy approach - available on DVD from Universal). The Warner Archive disc of Cry 'Havoc' is another winner. The full frame image is clear and fairly crisp with good contrast. Speckles and a few scratches are apparent, but not distracting. The mono sound is good, with only a slight hint of hiss at times. There are no supplements. Recommended.
British Film Noir (Twilight Women/The Slasher) is a double feature offering from VCI. The title is a little misleading, because neither film aside from some murky shadows has any particular noir pedigree. They're both simply early 1950s British programmers of the crime genre.
The Slasher, also known as Cosh Boy and based on the play "Master Crook", is the more interesting of the two films. It's a tale of juvenile delinquency in the London tenements of the postwar period and is terrifically atmospheric. James Kenney reprises his stage role as a young gang leader who fancies himself as the brains of the group but eventually proves to be nothing more than a yellow little thug. Robert Ayers plays a Canadian (with a voice reminiscent of Ralph Bellamy) who eventually marries the young thug's mother and tries to enforce discipline leading to a satisfying ending. The film is filled with familiar British character actors including the two Hermiones (Baddeley and Gingold), a very young Joan Collins, and Sid James. Twilight Women (also known as Women of Twilight) has an offbeat plot concerning a woman (Freda Jackson) who runs a boarding house that caters to unwed mothers and other young women with problems. Behind her fašade of helpfulness and caring lies a personality more interested in profiting from their misfortunes. I imagine the film had some shock value originally, but now it's a less persuasive experience that goes on a little too long at its original 89-minute British release length. It is of interest to see a young Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny on the James Bond films) playing one of the young women and Laurence Harvey scores well in a small role with a couple of good scenes. Both films are presented in their original full-frame ratios. Sharpness on both films is acceptable, but The Slasher comes off a little better due to its superior contrast. Speckles and scratches are quite apparent, but never a distraction. The mono sound on both films is quite workable. There is one instance of a very noticeable volume fluctuation during The Slasher, but it doesn't last very long. Trailers comprise the only supplement. Recommended.
Sony has followed up its first Columbia film noir collection with an excellent second dip. Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II contains five 1950s titles that are all new to DVD: Human Desire, Pushover, The Brothers Rico, Nightfall, and City of Fear.
Human Desire (1954) is Fritz Lang's retelling of Emile Zola's "La Bete Humaine" in an American railroad setting. Glenn Ford plays a railroad engineer seduced by Gloria Grahame who has tired of her husband (Broderick Crawford) and sees a way out via Ford. The railroad setting with Lang's stylized use of railroad tracks as a metaphor for the interweaved lives adds tremendous atmosphere and vitality to the film. All three principal players are in top form, with Grahame perhaps never better in her sexually charged femme fatale role. Pushover (1954) stars Fred MacMurray in a film whose plot basics are quite reminiscent of Double Indemnity. MacMurray is a police detective who falls for a woman (Kim Novak) whom he has under surveillance in hopes that her bank robber boyfriend with show up with the money from his latest bank heist. MacMurray eventually conspires with her to kill the bank robber and run off together with the money. The comparisons between the two films are interesting. MacMurray's somewhat blowsy and weary cop isn't the fast talking, snappy-looking insurance agent of the earlier film, but he's no less obsessed with a woman who can lead him down a dishonest path. The difference is that MacMurray's character is much more in control in Pushover. In Double Indemnity, the cold calculating Barbara Stanwyck was the true power behind the plot, whereas Kim Novak is merely the icing on a cake of MacMurray's own making. It's always a pleasure to see Richard Conte in a film's cast and The Brothers Rico (1957) provides no exception to that. He plays one of three brothers in the film - a man now running a legitimate business who gets drawn back into involvement with the mob when his brothers' actions give the mob cause for concern. Conte's character seems almost powerless throughout the film, his actions like a puppet merely reactions to the actions of others. Nothing is as it seems and it's only when he realizes that being legitimate means that some tough decisions must be made that he re-exerts control over his life. The film has a great cast that includes James Darren and Paul Picerni as Conte's brothers and two juicy turns from Larry Gates and Harry Belaver as mob higher-ups. Nightfall (1957) pits Aldo Ray against two thugs (Brian Keith and Rudy Bond) who believe he knows where some money they stole is now hidden. The film has a great noir city atmosphere well punctuated by flashback scenes of a snow-covered outdoor landscape that is key to the film's plot. Anne Bancroft has a good role as the woman who helps Aldo Ray. The film has framing scenes with James Gregory who plays an insurance investigator - the significance of Gregory's involvement only becoming clear late in the film. City of Fear (1959) finds Vince Edwards playing an escaped convict who believes he holds a canister of drugs worth big money. In reality, it contains radioactive material that is slowly killing him and poses a threat to everyone in the city to which he has fled. The film is a standard programmer with nothing we haven't seen elsewhere. The police seem ineffectual and the manhunt that eventually closes in on Edwards' character never develops any sense of suspense. Sony has once again partnered with The Film Foundation for this release. Each film gets its own disc, with all transfers being 1.85:1 anamorphic. All the images are very good looking - sharp, good contrast, and with modest grain evident. Shadow detail is good in the darker scenes. Human Desire and City of Fear are a little softer looking than the others at times. The mono sound is clear and clean. Extras include Martin Scorsese discussing The Bothers Rico, featurettes with Christopher Nolan and Emily Mortimer, and the original theatrical trailers. Very highly recommended.
Bing Crosby: The Television Specials - Volume One is a new two-disc release from Infinity Entertainment that is intended to be the inaugural release in a series of DVDs from the Bing Crosby Archive.
It contains four of the 30 TV specials that Crosby starred in over the 1954 to 1977 period, shows that he hosted and performed in along with top stars of the day. The first disc is much the best of the two. It starts with Bing's debut special from January 3rd, 1954 - a half-hour show that featured Jack Benny and Sheree North. An ongoing skit featuring Benny and North is interwoven with Bing singing several songs. The show is very entertaining and even better offers a very nicely detailed full frame image that's sharp and sports very good contrast. Doubtless the show's filmed basis is responsible. The second special on the first disc is an hour-long special from September 29th, 1959 that has Bing hosting and performing with Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, and Louis Armstrong. The talent on display in this show is mind-boggling compared to anything available on TV today. Almost as a throw-away, we also get a segment in the show in which Crosby, Sinatra, and Lee sing with accompaniment from three of the top piano players of the day (George Shearing, Paul Smith, Joe Bushkin). The only down side is the fact that the image (from videotape) is substantially poorer than that of the first special - much softer with barely acceptable contrast marked by blown-out whites. At least the mono sound is in good shape. Supplements on the first disc include a fascinating early 1950s episode of The Christophers (a faith-based TV series) that features Crosby along with Bob Hope, golfer Ben Hogan, baseball player Ralph Kiner, and Phil Harris. There's also Bing's first colour TV appearance from 1954 with golfer Jimmy Demaret and a 1962 local TV interview from Hawaii. The second disc in the set starts off with the May 14th, 1962 special that featured Bob Hope, Edie Adams, son Gary Crosby, and the Smothers Brothers. The show has a theme of leisure activity and the entertainment value remains fairly high although it doesn't come close to that of the 1959 special. An extended medley of songs by Crosby and Hope from their Road films is much the highlight of the show. Pete Fountain also makes an appearance to good effect. The full frame image is an improvement over that of the 1959 special, but still looks soft with adequate contrast at best. The second special on disc two is from April 13th, 1970. It was entitled "Cooling It", delivering a leisure theme again with a futuristic twist this time. Dean Martin, Bernadette peters, and Flip Wilson were the featured guests. Unfortunately the results are very disappointing. The writing for the show is uninspired to say the least and most of the performers including Bing seem to be merely going through the motions. The only life in the hour is a segment involving Bing, Dean, and Flip Wilson in his Geraldine persona. The image is slightly sharper than that of the first special on the second disc. Colours look reasonably accurate. The mono sound on the second disc maintains the quality of that on the first disc. Supplements on the second disc include a January 1964 commercial that Bing did for 3M's Thermo-Fax copier and a 1967 interview with the host of the Australian TV show, Girl Talk. The latter is not exactly incisive television. Despite the uneven quality of the four specials both in their content and in how well they've translated to DVD, the first disc of this set alone is worth the price of admission. Recommended if you're a Bing Crosby fan. Others may wish to try a rental.
The Barbara Stanwyck Collection is part of Universal's Backlot Series. It's a three-disc set of six films starring Stanwyck that spans the 1937-1956 period.
Internes Can't Take Money (1937) was the fruit of a one-picture deal with Paramount for Stanwyck. The production was the first filming of a Dr. Kildare story, part of a series of books written by Max Brand. (MGM would later take control of the character's film rights for a series of films with Lew Ayres.) The film is no standard programmer and is elevated by Stanwyck's performance as a young mother searching for her daughter. Joel McCrea plays Kildare in a morally ambiguous manner that is a far cry from Lew Ayres' later more formulaic characterizations for MGM. McCrea and Stanwyck were together once again in 1942's The Great Man's Lady in which Stanwyck's 100-year old woman looks back on how her sacrifices were the real reason for her husband's success in life. William Wellman directed the film for Paramount, and Stanwyck considered it one of her favourites. The film comes across as somewhat disjointed with the McCrea character not well developed. Stanwyck gives a steady performance that holds our interest, but one always has the sense of an epic story not given the scope it requires. The Bride Wore Boots (Paramount, 1946) is a pretty lightweight affair with Stanwyck as a horse-breeding wife, the winning back of whose affections drives husband Robert Cummings' actions in the film. A slapstick horse race gives the film a boost, but Stanwyck and Cummings lack much of a spark as an on-screen couple. Natalie Wood in her second film appears as Stanwyck's daughter. The Lady Gambles (Universal, 1949) gives Stanwyck a juicy role as a woman addicted to gambling. Robert Preston is a devoted husband who attempts to help her. Young director Michael Gordon saw the film as potentially a gambling version of The Lost Weekend and draws a fine performance from Stanwyck. The result is an engrossing if dark entertainment, though it's never as persuasive as Gordon presumably intended. The collection concludes with two Douglas Sirk films for Universal - one a superior melodrama, the other one superb. The former is 1953's All I Desire in which Stanwyck plays a stage actress who returns to a small town and the family she abandoned ten years before. The role is a tour-de-force by Stanwyck as she deals in different ways with each member of her family. The appropriately dark ending that the film is heading to was derailed by a mandated happy conclusion courtesy of producer Ross Hunter. There's Always Tomorrow (1956) nominally stars Stanwyck, but it's Fred MacMurray's agonizing performance that sticks in the mind. MacMurray is a much put-upon husband, with an oblivious wife and self-centred children, who gets involved with old flame Stanwyck. The film is a masterpiece in terms of its dissection of the American family of the 1950s, with an ending that is truly shattering and the complete antithesis of the title. As is normal with Universal's classic releases on DVD (Blu-ray is something else!), the transfers are impeccable with one exception. They offer crisp, clean images (all full frame as originally presented) with some modest grain. The exception unfortunately is There's Always Tomorrow which is presented full frame (looks like it's open matte and somewhat zoomed) instead of with the 1.85:1 framing that it should have. The image also looks a bit soft at times too. The mono sound on all the films is in good shape. The only supplements are trailers accompanying The Great Man's Lady and All I Desire. The set is recommended, but would have been highly so except for the framing issue on There's Always Tomorrow.
Flicker Alley and Film Preservation Associates (David Shepard) continue their fruitful association with the DVD release of Rene Clair's 1927 silent film, The Italian Straw Hat. Clair's film is an out-and-out farce set on a summer wedding day in 1895.
The groom's horse eats part of a straw hat left hanging on a branch while its owner, a married lady, engages in a tryst behind the bush with a lover. The woman cannot return home without an intact hat for fear of embarrassing questions, so the groom must try to find the woman a replacement, something that consumes his thoughts and actions throughout his wedding. The result is a series of misunderstandings and embarrassing moments that provides viewers with a steady course of funny material whose timing as orchestrated by Clair is mostly impeccable. It's amusement of a gentle kind, hardly "one of the funniest films ever made" as some of the publicity would have you believe, but certainly diverting enough. The version on Flicker Alley's DVD is the only fully complete edition of The Italian Straw Hat ever available to North American viewers. It's drawn from a high definition master based on the original 35mm negative for the 1930 English release supplemented by missing pieces restored from an original French print. The resulting 1.33:1 image is impressive. There is some very minor damage that presumably couldn't be fixed plus some scratches and the odd fluctuation in brightness, but for the most part the image is sharp with very good contrast. New English intertitles are provided along with optional subtitles of the original French text. Two stereo musical accompaniments are available. I preferred the piano one by Philip Carli, but others may be partial to an orchestral arrangement by the Mont Palo Motion Picture Orchestra. Either do work well with the film. The supplement package is highlighted by two short films. Ferdinand Zecca's 1907 Fun After The Wedding is an delight and an obvious inspiration for Clair's film. Clair's own short subject The Eiffel Tower (1928) is a documentary that provides an interesting historical snapshot. Also included are a 1916 English translation of the original 1851 play on which the The Italian Straw Hat is based (DVD-ROM) and a 16-page booklet of essays about Clair and the film. Recommended.
You have to hand it to Sony. They promised us the complete chronological Three Stooges shorts and now with the release of The Three Stooges Collection: Volume 8 - 1955-1959, the studio has delivered.
Whether the shorts included on this set would ever actually see the light of day, especially the Joe Besser ones, has been a concern of fans, but here for better or worse they are. The set is a three-disc one containing the group's last 32 theatrical shorts. All are new to DVD, I believe, and all of course feature Moe and Larry, with Shemp appearing in the first 12 before he died in late 1955. The next four camouflage Shemp's death by using some stock footage, a double, or having the scripts refer to him with lines that ask where he is. The final 16 shorts all feature Joe Besser as Shemp's replacement. Besser was a vaudeville comedian who developed a "sissy" schtick that worked to good effect in isolated appearances. For example, he appeared regularly on Abbott and Costello's TV series and did so effectively because his on-camera stints were short. Beyond his "sissy" routine, he has little to offer and in his Stooges shorts, he quickly makes one pine for Shemp or Curly. It's a little dispiriting to watch these final 32 shorts. Most of them are remakes of previous shorts or incorporate older footage that just serves to make one long for the originals. The final 16 with Besser are truly unfunny with only the odd exception. At least the first 12 have Shemp although in the final few of those, Shemp's failing health is painfully apparent at times. Still, as a chronicle of the group's final years of making shorts at Columbia, they are invaluable and despite the shorts' shortcomings, what they were able to generate out of only a day or two's production time is amazing in comparison to the lack of inventiveness that characterizes most comedy nowadays. Sony presents all 32 shorts in their correct 1.85:1 mode and anamorphically enhanced. The images are crisp and sport a nice sheen of grain that can vary in intensity within a particular short depending upon whether you're viewing new material or footage from older shorts that's been incorporated in it. Image contrast is commendable. The mono sound is in good shape with only occasional hiss apparent. There are no supplements. Recommended, highly so for Stooges fans.
Classic Blu-ray Reviews
Stanley Kubrick's 1960 filming of Spartacus, a job he took over from Anthony Mann at the behest of Kirk Douglas, is one of the pantheon widescreen historic epics of the 1950s and 1960s.
Its story of a Roman slave revolt led by gladiator Spartacus (Douglas) has sweep and majesty, yet retains an intimate feel in its development of the relationship between Spartacus and the slave Varinia (Jean Simmons) who bears his child. The film never surrenders to false heroics and bears an ending that invokes both sorrow and inspiration. An impressive cast that also includes Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Peter Ustinov, and Tony Curtis subsumes itself to the story very effectively. The film's original three-hour-plus length was cut for re-release, but later restored in a well-documented 1991 restoration effort by Robert Harris. That restoration has been the basis for four home video releases of Spartacus - two on DVD and two in high definition. On DVD, the 2000 release by Universal was quickly superseded by a 2001 release from Criterion - a version that Harris has endorsed as addressing the film's colour timing and image density correctly. In 2006, Universal gave us an HD-DVD version that offered a strongly saturated image, but little else of merit. The image looked dirty at times with annoying digital artifacts and wavering colour intensity. Now we have 2010's Blu-ray version from Universal. It definitely looks better than the HD-DVD in terms of cleanliness, sharpness, and perhaps even heightened colour saturation, but digital manipulation is evident with some loss of high frequency detail. The problem is not as egregious as on Patton, for example, but it is noticeable on a 115" screen. It appears that rather than commission a new HD transfer, Universal has tried to manipulate its old master with digital tools. In some respects it has been successful, but in others obviously not. The studio needs to take a page out of Warner Bros.' book when it comes to releasing the classics on Blu-ray. Nothing but a proper new transfer is acceptable. If you have the Criterion DVD, I'd stick to it as your go-to version on Spartacus until Universal does the job properly on Blu-ray or gives the job to Criterion. The Criterion DVD also continues to have much the best of it when it comes to supplements too, including an audio commentary by producer/actor Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, novelist Howard Fast, producer Edward Lewis, restoration expert Robert A. Harris, and designer Saul Bass that the Universal Blu-ray lacks.