|Classic Reviews Round-Up #56 and New Announcements
This late-summer edition of the column provides some further thoughts on the classic outlook that has been discussed in several earlier columns this year. I also have a number of classic reviews for you and the usual update of new classic announcements. The reviews cover such titles as Sony's Icons of Screwball Comedy: Volume One and Volume Two, Flicker Alley's Lost Films of John Gilbert, Legend Films' The Outlaw, VCI's Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre: Complete Season One, and the Warner Archive's Nora Prentiss, Juke Girl, The Man I Love, and The Hard Way. The new announcements database has also been updated accordingly.
In my first column of this year, I provided some comments on the classic outlook for 2009 by studio. Much has become clearer over this past six months. The Warner Bros. situation is perhaps the most contentious while that of Fox is the most disappointing.
After a promising beginning, Warners' programme of pressed releases virtually dried up over the late spring and summer, only coming somewhat to life with the onset of the fall announcements. Filling the gap was the introduction of the Warner Archive Collection - an initiative intended to make many classic titles available as burned discs on demand. Unfortunately its execution has been less than commendable with issues arising from inconsistent transfer quality to excessive prices and inaccessibility for customers in Canada and overseas. Some of these issues have begun to be addressed positively, particularly pricing by way of the half-price bundling of titles, but the overall concept may eventually find at best grudging acceptance as the only way to make many of the lesser-known classic titles available at all. The studio appears to have committed itself to making the Archive approach work and consequently, it seems clear that the golden days of Warner box sets with sparkling new transfers and impressive extras on pressed discs appearing virtually every month are behind us and that we're likely to see such products on only an occasional basis in the future.
Much as fans may be unhappy with the reduced/altered output from Warners, the real disappointment is the Fox situation. The classic faucet has been effectively turned off and aside from some classic titles making the transition from DVD to Blu-ray, no new classic releases are apparently planned for the remainder of this year. Nor is there anything to suggest that a change in this approach will be forthcoming next year.
Balancing the Warner and Fox situations are new initiatives at Sony and Universal that have seen unexpected new classic releases on pressed discs from both studios as well as further announced titles over the rest of the year. It would not be a surprise, however, if one heard that both would also be investigating the Warner Archive approach as a way forward in the future. For the time being, a continuation of the current release policies into the coming year seems likely though. The Sony initiative is particularly exciting for classic fans, with numerous box sets already announced and on the horizon, so that that studio has effectively replaced Warners as classic releasing studio of choice, at least for the time being.
The very modest classic initiative policies at Paramount, MGM, and Disney are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
This overall pullback in classic titles as evidenced by the current state of studio releases is merely a culmination of trends over the past two or three years. The declining economy that has negatively impacted buyers' available DVD purchasing capability, reductions in shelf space devoted to catalog titles at major retailers, the rise of Blu-ray and its demands on the studios' disc production and advertising budgets, and as much as we may hate to admit it, the decreasing size of the market for classic titles as older fans pass on and are not replaced by new younger enthusiasts at the same rate - all have contributed to the current state of affairs. It must be admitted too that there has been a gradual erosion of the collector mentality among those with film interests. It still exists but increasingly, many people are interested in downloading and/or renting copies of films they want to see, without any particular desire to own a copy themselves. That can tend to breed a mentality of acceptance of less than the best quality transfer. It's the reason that the Warner Archive might be successful despite its inferior transfers and questionable disc longevity.
Despite the current rather gloomy outlook at least in comparison to a couple of years ago, there are positives or opportunities though. The wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth in some quarters is in my opinion an over-reaction to the situation.
1) Despite its pullback from pressed releases of classic titles, Warner Bros. has not abandoned the field and will continue with a scaled-down program. We already know that a Film Noir box and another Errol Flynn set are definitely planned, and I suspect more Judy Garland titles are in the offing too.
2) It seems unlikely that we will never see another classic release from Fox. The current regime may not be interested, but regimes change all the time.
3) If one looks at the Region 1 September-to-November release schedule from the glass-half-full point of view, about 100 classic releases are planned so far. Even allowing that some of these are DVD reissues or Blu-ray versions of previously released titles, collectors' wallets would have to be pretty thick to buy everything that will be available even in this “lean” time.
4) So much has come out in Region 1 over the past half a dozen years, that one tends to forget that a number of classics have also appeared in other regions and some are titles not available in Region 1. With region-free players being so inexpensive, this is a good time to investigate and invest in such titles. Lines such as The Masters of Cinema and Optimum Releasing are good starting points in Region 2, but releases in other regions also bear scrutiny.
5) For all its difficulties, it must be admitted that The Warner Archive has made available titles that might otherwise have never appeared on pressed DVD or at least not in the near future. Collectors, however, need to keep up the pressure on Warner Bros. to ensure that the studio carries through on its promises regarding quality, price, and accessibility outside the United States. Buy only those titles that are known to offer quality transfers and focus purchases on the 50% off collections that at least begin to offer value for the dollar.
6) Finally, collectors need to support those studios that are providing quality DVD releases at a reasonable price point. The recent Sony initiatives deserve such support as does Universal's new Backlot Collection, but there are small companies that still cater to the classic collector such as VCI, Kino, Criterion, and Flicker Alley (among others) that equally deserve consideration. That's not to say that one should purchase their releases blindly, but do seek out information on what titles they have available and reviews of them, and then proceed accordingly. For it's certainly true that classic releases from such sources will only continue if they're successful in the marketplace.
One of the current highlights of Sony's renaissance in releasing its classic Columbia films to DVD is the appearance of Icons of Screwball Comedy: Volume One and Volume Two.
Columbia was known particularly for its contributions to screwball comedy and many of its best titles have already made their way to DVD (the key Frank Capra films and The Awful Truth, Twentieth Century, His Girl Friday, etc.). The two new releases (each with four titles on two discs) fill in some of the gaps and include at least one superb and previously unreleased example of the genre - Theodora Goes Wild, which appears on Volume Two along with The Doctor Takes a Wife (1940), A Night to Remember (1943), and Together Again (1944). Theodora's chief asset is the delightful Irene Dunne who plays a small-town writer of a scandalous novel. Via her publisher she soon gets entangled with a sophisticated New Yorker (Melvyn Douglas) who threatens her efforts to protect her identity from her neighbors and friends. The film has all the outrageous twists and numerous recognizable supporting players that mark the best screwball outings. Dunne is also represented by Together Again in which she's a widowed small-town mayor who tries to hire sculptor Charles Boyer to craft a statue of her late husband. Dunne really makes this one work, even making Boyer look not out-of-place in a screwball environment. The other two films in Volume Two remind us that Loretta Young could be quite an asset in such films too. She and Ray Milland have great chemistry in the predictable but enjoyable The Doctor Takes a Wife and she makes lightweight Brian Aherne look pretty good in the amiable murder-mystery A Night to Remember. The films in Volume One highlight the work of Jean Arthur and Rosalind Russell. In If You Could Only Cook (1935), Arthur teams with Herbert Marshall as a cook and butler who take on jobs with mobster Leo Carrillo. The catch - Marshall, unknown to the out-of-work Arthur, is actually an automobile tycoon and inventor disenchanted with his company and impending nuptials. The film's basic premise is classic screwball fare and the film moves along briskly although the ending is rather weak. Arthur also shines in Too Many Husbands (1940). The film has a familiar premise of a spouse (Fred MacMurray) previously thought dead returning unexpectedly and causing havoc for his wife who has remarried (in this case, to Melvyn Douglas). MacMurray can play this sort of role blindfolded and he's a constant source of pleasure throughout, complementing the always delightful Arthur well. My Sister Eileen (1942) and She Wouldn't Say Yes (1945) both star Rosalind Russell. In My Sister Eileen, she and her sister (Janet Blair) try to make a go of it in New York in a Greenwich Village basement apartment. The premise is okay and Russell tries hard, but the supporting cast (George Tobias, Allen Joslyn) doesn't have the sparkle of the best screwball efforts. She Wouldn't Say Yes finds Russell playing a psychiatrist who becomes romantically entangled with serviceman Lee Bowman. The film seems a little strained and is an amiable time-passer at best. All eight films in these two releases receive good to very good transfers. All are sharp and quite clean-looking, with appropriate grain levels intact. Theodora Goes Wild, Too Many Husbands, The Doctor Takes a Wife, and A Night to Remember are perhaps a tad better than the others in terms of contrast levels. The mono sound on all titles is clear. Volume One adds trailers for the two Rosalind Russell films and the 1946 Columbia short Ain't Love Cuckoo, while Volume Two provides trailers for three of its four titles (not for Together Again) and the 1940 cartoon Mad Hatter. Both of these Sony releases deserve the support of all classics fans. Icons of Screwball Comedy: Volume Two is highly recommended, while Volume One is recommended.
VCI's recent release of Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theatre: Complete Season One is an appealing one. It includes all 29 episodes, complete where possible with each's introductory segment in which Powell would briefly discuss some aspect of western life, usually related to the theme of that week's program.
Powell provided useful information but didn't feel it necessary to be too solemn about it, injecting some welcome levity at times. The half-hour stories were typical short western morality plays of the time, some black and white in tone, but more often shaded the better to reflect the feel of real life. The short running time proves restrictive for some of the episodes, but most are satisfactorily resolved. Powell starred in a number of them, but more often a well known actor or actress played the lead. The line-up of stars in the first season is impressive indeed - Robert Ryan, David Niven, Jack Palance, Ida Lupino, Ralph Bellamy, jack Lemmon, Rory Calhoun, Beverly Garland, Lloyd Bridges, Celeste Holm, Sterling Hayden, Ernest Borgnine, John Derek, Julie London, Ralph Meeker. Eddie Albert, John Forsythe, Stephen McNally, etc. Just as impressive, however, is the wide range of well-known character actors on display - Harry Lauter, Willis Bouchey, Skip Homeier, Tom Tully, Roy Barcroft, Regis Toomey, Claude Akins, DeForest Kelley, and so on. The series, drawing its anthology inspiration from Four Star Playhouse (an earlier series also produced by Four Star Productions [the four stars were Powell, Ida Lupino, Charles Boyer, and David Niven]) got its name from its use of Zane Grey's stories in many of its early episodes, and although the Zane Grey reliance dwindled with time, it retained the title for all of its 5-season run. The series was notable for the many episodes that spun off into later TV series. From this first season, the episode “Badge of Honor” with Robert Culp led to Trackdown. Later seasons' episodes would provide the genesis for The Rifleman, Black Saddle, Johnny Ringo, and The Westerner. VCI's presentation efforts are praiseworthy. The 29 black and white episodes are spread across 4 discs and virtually all look quite good. Sharpness and image detail are above average. Softness and some speckles and scratches do intrude at times, but they're not significant problems. The mono sound is fine. A nice suite of extras includes a 27-minute video interview with Dick Powell's son, Norman Powell; an audio interview with author Christine Becker about the history of Four Star Productions; vintage Maxwell House coffee commercials; several TV promos for the series; and a set of liner notes. Highly recommended for western fans and recommended for classic TV fans in general.
I had high hopes for Nora Prentiss, recently made available on the Warner Bros. Archive, but the quality of the release is poor and the packaging uses an illustrative still on the back that isn't even from the film, but from another good Sheridan release of the same year - The Unfaithful.
That's a real shame, for Nora Prentiss is one of Ann Sheridan's best efforts at Warner Bros. Originally released in 1947, it has the film noir look and flavour of Mildred Pierce though lacking that film's bravura centerpiece performance. In it, Sheridan plays the title role, a nightclub singer who begins an affair with a San Francisco doctor, Richard Talbot (Kent Smith). Talbot is unable to bring himself to ask his wife for a divorce, but seizes on the opportunity presented by the sudden death of a patient to substitute that person's body for himself in a car accident that makes it appear that Talbot has died. Talbot and Nora then try to start a life together in New York, but a bizarre set of circumstances eventually lead to Talbot being charged with his own murder. Directed by Vincent Sherman and photographed by James Wong Howe, the film is a tremendously atmospheric experience that manages to make the New York and San Francisco locations claustrophobic indeed. It is a romantic film without true romance, Ann Sheridan's face conveying a resignation even when she smiles that almost from the beginning suggests that her relationship with Talbot is doomed. The two seemed locked in a prison no matter what they do or where they go, much of that sense created by the use of barred images both real and shadow-induced. Sheridan provides an impressive, understated performance and receives good support from Kent Smith and Bruce Bennett (as Talbot's office associate). Warner's DVD-R presentation is a great disappointment. The image is frequently soft with mediocre contrast more often than not. Shadow detail is lacking and there are numerous speckles and scratches. Worst of all, my copy broke up into blocks at least half a dozen times and froze up entirely at least twice on the 2 players that I tested it on. The mono audio is merely passable and the only supplement is the theatrical trailer. No matter whether you pay full price or get it at half off as part of the Women of Warner's six-pack, this product is unacceptable and just degrades Warner's hard-earned reputation for excellence in classic releases. That it has happened with a fine film such as Nora Prentiss is doubly disappointing.
Another Archive release, Juke Girl fares a little better, with the transfer offering a much crisper image than Nora Prentiss.
Black levels are better and shadow detail is quite decent, a good thing given the many night-time scenes in the film. Unfortunately, the image becomes blocky and freezes up near the 8-minute mark (on both of my players again), although once past that, it proceeds without further major incident. The mono sound is clear and the theatrical trailer is added as the only supplement. Juke Girl was Ronald Reagan's and Ann Sheridan's follow-up film to their excellent work in Kings Row. It proved to be more of a reward for Reagan than Sheridan. Reagan had a meaty role as an itinerant farm worker who finds himself at the centre of a conflict between management and labour among the fruit and vegetable farms of Florida. Sheridan has the title role, but she gets little chance to shine as she serves little purpose beyond a love interest for Reagan's character. The film itself delivers a reasonably compelling if familiar tale, but suffers from rather punchless support casting - particularly Gene Lockhart and Howard da Silva as the packing plant owner and his foreman respectively. Location shooting in California farmlands provides a good atmosphere to the film, even though it was a chore for the actors - conditions were often near freezing as shooting was done in the winter and the coldness had to be disguised in order to simulate the humid Florida climate being depicted. The film would ordinarily be a definite purchase for fans of 1940s WB films and Ann Sheridan in particular, but the disc's difficulties at the price point offered preclude more than a rental.