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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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More Reviews


High Society
(released on DVD by WB on April 22, 2003)

As a remake of 1940's The Philadelphia Story, 1956's High Society will not make you forget the original. Musical remakes seldom do. (Who can forget the abominable 1973 musical remake of 1937's Lost Horizon?) But in the mid-1950s, MGM was in the mood to do such things and if there was one thing going for the studio, it was the stable of talent it was able to bring to bear on such efforts. In the case of High Society, that talent included Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly, and Louis Armstrong. It's pretty hard to go wrong with that pedigree and so High Society turns out to be a pretty good piece of entertainment although perhaps not in the very top tier of musicals. MGM's usual high standard of production values don't hurt matters either.

High Society

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The story has been transposed from Philadelphia to Newport but otherwise pretty faithfully follows the original. Grace Kelly plays rich young society matron Tracy Lord who is planning to marry a stuffy society fellow when her ex-husband C.K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby) comes back into the picture. Dexter is convinced that Tracy's new husband-to-be will only make her miserable. Complicating the issue are two reporters (Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm) who have been assigned to do a major magazine layout on the wedding. Tracy at first insists that the wedding will proceed, but eventually she starts to have her own doubts and when she seems to have had a moonlight fling with Sinatra's character, it doesn't look like there'll be a wedding after all.

Bing Crosby comes off best of all the principals in High Society. He has fine material to work with (his rendition of "True Love", partially with Grace Kelly, is a highlight) and his usual relaxed screen persona fits the Dexter-Haven character well. Sinatra doesn't register as strongly because his character is less interesting. He does, however, team well with Crosby in "What a Swell Party This Is". Louis Armstrong, as always, is a pleasure to have along and he registers strongly with the number that opens the film and in a duet with Bing - 'Now You Has Jazz".

WB has delivered a fine-looking, colourful, and sharp 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of this VistaVision production. VistaVision originally allowed for projection at anywhere from 1.66:1 to about 2.1:1 and the ratio chosen here works well. The source material seems to have been in pretty good shape since there is little evidence of imperfections in the way of scratches or excessive speckling. Some scenes suggest a bit of a halo effect, but this is likely more related to difficulties with the original Technicolor process than any digital enhancement. In any event, it's not a matter of great consequence and fans should be pleased with the overall results. The presentation includes the original overture. As with Kiss Me Kate, we get a soundtrack remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1. The results are not quite as effective, but still pleasing overall. Separation effects are subtle, but noticeable. The surrounds, however, are almost inactive. Extras include a new short featurette hosted by Celeste Holm that provides quite a bit of the making-of detail that is so useful for such films. The premiere newsreel, a 1956 Tex Avery Cinemascope cartoon Millionaire Droopy, radio ads, and trailers for both High Society and The Philadelphia Story round out the disc.


Les Girls
(released on DVD by WB on April 22, 2003)

It's rather unfortunate, but Les Girls (1957) is one musical that seems to get little respect. In many musical evaluations, it almost seems like an afterthought perhaps because it was Gene Kelly's last musical film for MGM. Yet it has a good story and plenty of wit and charm that would probably allow it to stand on its own even without the added pleasure of Cole Porter's songs. If those songs aren't memorable (except "Ca, C'est L'amour"), they are at least tuneful and danced and sung with enjoyment by Kelly and his trio of co-stars - Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, and Taina Elg. Don't let the lack of profile that this film tends to have had over the years deter you from watching it. It's well worth the time.

The women in the title are three musical entertainers (American, British, and French) who have performed across Europe with American dancer/singer Barry Nichols as part of his touring act. As told during a series of flashbacks during a trial held in a London courtroom, the four principals are at odds over the memoirs just published by the British performer in the group. The flashbacks sketch out the whole background and also show how each of the women have seen the same events differently - a common plot device dating back to at least Rashomon (1950) and probably earlier.

Les Girls

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Gene Kelly's efforts in the film were perhaps less encompassing than in the past, although he had to take over the choreography when choreographer Jack Cole became ill for a time. Still, his performance is as dynamic as ever if less inventive than in previous films. All three of the women principals shone in their roles. Mitzi Gaynor's dancing was exhilarating and led to her selection to star in South Pacific (1958). Kay Kendall was the real central spark in the film demonstrating her talent for both comedy and dance. That she would appear in only two further films before dying very prematurely of leukemia was a real shock to her many fans. Taina Elg, a name little remembered by film fans, showed off both her balletic dancing skills as well as a pleasing singing voice in "Ca, C'est L'amour".

This is another winning transfer from WB. The 2.35:1 Cinemascope anamorphically-enhanced image is bright, colourful and clear with excellent blacks, clean whites , and good shadow detail. There are a few minor instances of apparent edge effects and some minor speckling, but the overall effort makes this easily the best-looking the film has appeared on home video. Warners also gives the film a new Dolby Digital 5.1 remaster that works quite well, in fact probably the best of the remastered sound tracks in the Cole Porter Collection. The music is very dynamic with both good separation and surround effects, although the latter are subtle as they usually are in such efforts. Supplements on the disc include a new featurette on the making-of the film hosted by Taina Elg (short but informative like the others in this collection), a 1954 Tex Avery cartoon Flea Circus, and a theatrical trailer.


Silk Stockings
(released on DVD by WB on April 22, 2003)

Similar to the case with High Society, Silk Stockings (1957) is a musical remake of a previously well-received film, in this case 1939's Ninotchka, which had starred Greta Garbo. Silk Stockings had the added pedigree of having first been a successful Broadway production in 1955. The story line in the musical retains much of the basic premise of the original, but differs in some of the details. Basically, three Russian officials who have been sent to Paris to ensure the return of Russian composer Peter Boroff find themselves corrupted by the capitalist system. Another Russian functionary, Nina Yoshenko, is dispatched to bring them all back, but finds herself gradually captivated by both Paris and American producer Steve Canfield. On the verge of falling in love with Canfield, Nina suddenly decides to return to Russia when she becomes disenchanted with Canfield's stage play that appears to belittle its Russian composer's contributions. The efforts of Canfield, abetted by the three Russian officials whose actions started the whole story, manage to lure Nina back, to what Canfield hopes will be a happy ending.

Silk Stockings

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One of the last musicals made by the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM, Silk Stockings was certainly not one of the least. It has a wonderful blend of comedy and musical content that maintains interest and provides entertainment throughout. The dancing, in the hands of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, is excellent and the comic actions of the three Russians, played by Peter Lorre, Jules Munshin, and Joseph Buloff, hit the right note. The latter three even perform a delightful comedy song-and-dance "Siberia", which reminds one of the pleasures of "Brush Up Your Shakespeare" in Kiss Me Kate.

While Silk Stockings possessed many of the trappings of the studio musical at its best, it also very much reflected the trend of the times - to rely on already-successful source material as one way of waterproofing itself against failure and the consequences of that given the rapidly increasing costs of mounting musical films. This trend soon became virtually a given, with virtually all major musicals thereafter having a successful stage origin to build upon. Another sign of the times was the retirement of the major musical talents that had graced so many of the musicals of the previous two decades. Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were among those who increasingly concentrated on serious acting or directing, and there were no replacements of comparable stature.

WB gives us a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of this CinemaScope production. The results are very pleasing. While the overall impact may not be quite as dazzling as can be had from Technicolor material, the Metrocolor film is still bright and natural-looking. The image is sharp and clear with excellent contrast. Few imperfections mar the transfer image, reflecting the good source material employed. The remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track works well, delivering good separation and some modest surround effects. The extras include a short featurette hosted by Cyd Charisse that provides good making-of information, two vintage musical shorts, and a theatrical trailer. The two musical shorts provide an interesting contrast. One - The Poet and Peasant Overture - presents the MGM orchestra playing the title number in CinemaScope. The other (Paree Paree) is a 1934 Vitaphone short featuring a young Bob Hope on the make in Paris, definitely an entertaining curiosity.


Other Reviews

In the spirit of the column's topic, I offer some comments on three musical DVDs recently released by Fox, all of a more recent vintage than those discussed above. The three are the often-requested Hello, Dolly!, the delayed All That Jazz, and the enjoyable Simon and Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park. None are perfect discs, but each has merits that make their acquisition worthwhile. The best film of the three is All That Jazz, but Hello, Dolly! has the best DVD transfer.


Hello, Dolly!
(released on DVD by Fox on August 19, 2003)

Hello, Dolly! (1969) isn't a very good film. It's too long; its musical numbers are for the most part underwhelming; it doesn't have Carol Channing in the title role; and Walter Matthau's efforts at song and dance seem more embarrassing than anything else. Of course, Barbra Streisand devotees frequently extol the film because she's in it, but that overlooks the fact that she's too young for her role and that she never really breathes life into the songs she sings other than perhaps the title number. Of course, the latter also benefits from the participation of Louis Armstrong, and it's his involvement that is evoked by the name of the film more than anything else. When one realizes that direction was in the hands of Gene Kelly, it's hard to imagine what went wrong. In his heyday, Kelly would have given short shrift to the excesses on view here. By this point, you're either nodding your head, or shaking it in annoyance while thinking that I'm crazy. In any event, I'm not going to say anything more about the film's content.

Hello, Dolly!

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I'd rather talk about the work that Fox has done on its 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer. The effort more than does the film justice. From the first frame, the results look excellent and continue so throughout. The image reproduces the film's colourful look (one of its few positive aspects) with bright, sharp, and accurate colour tones. Blacks and whites are as they should be; shadow detail is great; and there is a distinct lack of any over-processing of the image. This one has a real film-like look to it, and enjoying the image quality is almost enough to make you let you overlook the film's defects, except that it goes on so long, you just can't. Is it perfect? No, but the odd speckle or other imperfection that do appear are of no consequence. Here's one DVD that really is worth getting just for the quality of the image.

The sound isn't too shabby either. After all, it's a Dolby Digital 4.0 mix (even if the packaging says it's only 2.0 stereo) that is really dynamic with good separation and effective surround content. Supplements are limited to a short 1969 featurette that provides behind-the-scenes imagery of some of the film's larger set pieces, English and Spanish theatrical trailers, and trailers for four other Fox musicals.


Simon and Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park
(released on DVD by Fox on August 19, 2003)

This is getting beyond the scope of classic films, but I enjoyed this disc so much that I wanted to share it with you. Of course, it helps if you're a Simon and Garfunkel fan. The disc basically allows us to experience the duo's reunion concert that came about in 1982, about a decade after the pair had split up. There's no padding here, just 88 minutes packed with 22 of their best songs including wonderful renditions of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "The Sound of Silence". The only regret is that "Homeward Bound" comes second on the program and the pair are not quite warmed up to the moment in order to give the song its real due.

Simon and Garfunkel: The Concert in Central Park

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One purchases this disc for the music, not the image quality, which is average at best. The full-frame picture frequently lacks sharpness and often looks pale. One presumes that the problem is the source material and that Fox has done the best that it could. Nor is the sound track scintillating either. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track is adequate, but oh to have heard this with a remastered surround track. The disc would have benefited from even some text supplements providing historical context to the event it depicts, but instead we get trailers for eight Fox musicals, none of which have anything to do with Simon and Garfunkel. To all of which you might well say that the disc quality and content don't seem to provide much of a recommendation for a purchase. But the Simon and Garfunkel performances transcend all that and you get transported by the music, quickly forgetting the petty annoyances of the medium.


All That Jazz
(released on DVD by Fox on August 19, 2003)

I suspect that All That Jazz (1979) is very much a love-it or hate-it kind of musical for most people. It's apparently a thinly-veiled account of part of the life of Bob Fosse as told through the character of Joe Gideon, an obsessive, workaholic choreographer played with great skill and élan by Roy Scheider. Gideon is only happy when he's working and virtually every other aspect of his life has been a disaster. Then the ultimate disaster happens as his body breaks down just as he's rehearsing a new show, threatening to draw the curtain on what remains of his life. The story is conveyed as a series of flashbacks framed by conversations between Gideon and an apparent Angel of Death. There are instances of self-indulgence here, particularly the final numbers that blur hallucination and reality and end with an incredible version of "Bye Bye Love", but despite that this is powerful film-making from director Bob Fosse.

All That Jazz

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The film is of course characterized by plenty of Fosse's distinctive choreography, but it is the mesmerizing performance by Roy Scheider that completely draws one in. He's well supported by a fine cast, among which Leland Palmer and Erzsebet Foldi stand out as his ex-wife and daughter respectively. This is a dark movie with the gritty look that typifies the films of the era in which it was made (the 1970s), but it is also one that comes gloriously and brightly to life during some truly outstanding dance numbers. I enjoyed it immensely and while it's distinctively different from the musicals of Hollywood's Golden Age, one will find many reminders that that's where Fosse got his start.

Fox has done wonders with a film that previously looked pretty ragged and noisy on home video. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer still betrays a few instances of excessive grain, but for the most part the image is solid if a tad dark at times. Colours are true and flesh tones look natural. Shadow detail is quite good and blacks and whites are properly conveyed. Edge effects are not an issue. High marks to Fox on this one.

A Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround track does an effective job with the music, creating a good sense of envelopment with some surprisingly good separation and surround effects. Supplements consist of informative if brief audio commentary by Roy Scheider for 23 specific scenes in the movie (each accessible separately), a vintage interview with Scheider while on the set, five short clips of Fosse art work on the film's opening cattle-call sequence, the theatrical trailer and trailers for several other Fox films.


New Classic Announcements

This column's wrap-up of new announcements is one of the thinnest so far this year. There are a few new announcements, but also a number of confirmations of previously rumoured titles, with the independent releasers as well-represented as the major studios. The the Classic Release Database has been updated accordingly.

Columbia has announced eight new releases. On October 21st, we'll get The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949), both with Larry Parks portraying Al Jolson. These were prestige productions in their day, but appear to be getting Columbia's standard classic release treatment. Both will be full-frame as originally shot, with mono sound and the usual dearth of supplements. Similar treatment will be given to You'll Never Get Rich (1941, with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth) and The Marrying Kind (1952, with Judy Holliday), due for release the same day as the two Jolsons. A week later, on October 28th, on offer will be the Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy consisting of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), and The World of Apu (1959). Also being released then will be The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956, with Judy Holliday). All will be presented in their original aspect ratio, but with minimal supplementary material. I hesitate to suggest taking any advance action on these titles, given Columbia's spotty record of late on their classic releases.

Fox has confirmed the November 4th release of Laura (1944) as part of its Studio Classics series. It will be newly remastered in 1.37:1 full screen and 2.0 stereo, with extras including two audio commentaries with David Raskin and Janine Basinger and the second with Rudy Behlmer, a "Biography" special with Gene Tierney and Vincent Price, a restoration comparison, a MovieTone newsreel, still gallery, and trailers. On the same date, Fox will have the 1950 holiday comedy A Christmas Wish (also known as The Great Rupert, with Jimmy Durante and Terry Moore), presented in 1.37:1 full screen in both colorized and black and white versions, a newly-remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, an audio commentary by Terry Moore, and trailers.

As previously announced on The Bits, at long last, Paramount has officially announced the DVD release of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West: Special Collector's Edition for November 18th. The 2-disc set is now confirmed to contain the 165-minute version of the film, in restored anamorphic widescreen video with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio and a cleaned-up mono mix as well, audio commentary (featuring directors John Carpenter, John Milius and Alex Cox, film historians Sir Christopher Fraying and Dr. Sheldon Hall, plus additional comments from cast and crew members), the documentaries An Opera of Violence, The Wages of Sin and Something to Do with Death (that include exclusive interviews with Claudia Cardinale, Gabriele Ferzetti, Bernardo Bertolucci and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli with contributions from John Carpenter, John Millius, Alex Cox, Sir Christopher Frayling and Dr. Sheldon Hall), The Railroad: Revolutionizing the West featurette, a location gallery, a production gallery, cast profiles, and a theatrical trailer. The disc will feature the same cover art as the international release.

Warner Brothers has confirmed that on October 28th, it will release a two-disc set of Lon Chaney films under a new TCM Archives imprint. The silent films Ace of Hearts (1921), Laugh Clown Laugh (1928), and The Unknown (1927) will be featured. Included as extras will be audio commentaries by Chaney expert Michael Blake, a recent documentary entitled A Thousand Faces, and a reconstruction of the lost film London After Midnight (1927).

Turning to the independents, Criterion will have two releases on October 14th. Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (1970) gets a two-disc treatment, complete with a remastered 1.37:1 transfer and the original French mono track. Extras include excerpts from "Cinéastes de notres temps"; the 1970 documentary Jean-Pierre Melville (Portrait en 9 Poses); new video interviews with Melville friend and editor of "Melville on Melville", Rui Nogueira, and assistant director Bernard Stora; 30 minutes of rare on-set footage featuring interviews with director Jean-Pierre Melville and cast; French television interview footage with Melville and Delon; the original theatrical and 2002 re-release trailers; a still gallery; new essays by film critics Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara; and an introduction from filmmaker John Woo. Yasujiro Ozu 's Tokyo Story (1953) will be newly remastered in 1.37:1 full screen and Japanese mono. Extras will include an audio commentary by Ozu film scholar David Desser; the 120-minute documentary I Lived, But... about the life and career of Ozu; Talking with Ozu, a 30-minute tribute to featuring reflections from his fellow filmmakers; the original theatrical trailer; and a new essay by David Bordwell, author of "Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema". On November 18th, expect special editions of Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939), Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954) and Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955). Criterion's associate, Home Vision, will release Carol Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings (1955, with Diana Dors and Celia Johnson) on October 21st.

Image Entertainment's October releases include, on October 21st, a Buster Keaton double feature of The General (1927) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), and two 5-disc sets of The Dick Van Dyke Show: Season One and Season Two (each with a number of bonus features including commentaries on a few episodes by Carl Reiner and Dick Van Dyke).

Kino has confirmed that a classic of the silent German Expressionist era, The Man Who Laughs (1928) is due out on September 30th. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, the film stars Conrad Veidt as a nobleman's son whose face is carved into a gruesome permanent smile (this film was apparently the inspiration for Batman's nemesis The Joker). The disc features a newly restored transfer, the original Movietone soundtrack newly restored by Universal Studios. a 20-minute documentary, rare home-movie footage of Veidt, an extensive gallery of rare photographs and art, an excerpt from the Italian release version as well as from Hugo's novel, and a booklet essay by John Soister, author of "Conrad Veidt on Screen".

MPI has confirmed its release of the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films. On October 28th, The Sherlock Holmes Collection (Volume 1) will debut. It will be a 4-disc set including Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943). Following on November 25th will be The Sherlock Holmes Collection (Volume 2). It will be another 4-disc set including The Scarlet Claw (1944), Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman (1944), The Pearl of Death (1944), and The House of Fear (1945). Based on this information, one can expect The Sherlock Holmes Collection (Volumes 3 and 4) to be forthcoming soon thereafter with Volume 3 including The Woman in Green (1945), Pursuit to Algiers (1945), Terror by Night (1946), and Dressed to Kill (1946), and Volume 4 including the two Fox films that introduced the Rathbone/Bruce pairing - The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939). The decision to release all the later Universal titles first is believed to be due to the extensive restoration work carried out on them. The Fox titles are apparently in poorer shape. All titles will also be available separately.

Coming soon (no specific dates announced) from VCI are DVDs of The Great Flamarion (1945, with Erich von Stroheim), St. Benny the Dip (1951, with Dick Haymes), The Fighter (1952, with Richard Conte), and a film noir double bill of The Scar (1948, with Paul Henreid) and The Limping Man (1953, with Lloyd Bridges).

Blue Underground has three Christopher Lee titles planned for a September 30th release: The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), The Castle of Fu Manchu (1970), and Circus of Fear (1967). Each gets the newly remastered, anamorphic widescreen treatment and stereo remixes. Extras include audio commentaries, deleted footage, a still gallery, Christopher Lee biographical information, and trailers. The titles will be available individually and also as part of The Christopher Lee Collection, which includes a bonus disc of The Bloody Judge (1970).

Alpha Video once again has its usual slate of new monthly releases. For November 4, they've announced another couple of dozen films whose titles can be found listed in the data base. It's the usual mix of familiar public domain titles with a few mystery and B-western curiosities thrown in. Ken Maynard fans may wish to take a flier on a couple of the releases.

In UK Region 2 news, Warner Home Video will release the Ealing Classics DVD Collection in September. This focuses on four drama classics rather than comedy. The titles included are: Went the Day Well? (1942), Dead of Night (1945), Nicholas Nickleby (1947), and Scott of the Antarctic (1948). All will be full frame and mono as originally made, and the packaging will include cards reproducing the original poster art. Eureka Video's current 2004 schedule includes the following films: Sunrise (1927, Murnau) in January, Doctor Mabuse I & II (1922, Lang) in February, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933, Lang) in March, The Holy Mountain (1926, Fanck) in March, The Last Laugh (1924, Murnau) in April, Herr Tartuff (1926, Murnau) in May, Diary of a Lost Girl (1929, Pabst) in June, Die Nibelungen I & II (1924, Lang) in June, and Michael (1924, Dreyer) in September.

Well, that's all for now. With the summer drawing to a close, I hope to step up the frequency of these columns somewhat. See you again soon.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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