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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #48 and New Announcements

Since some family obligations will curtail my DVD-related activities over the next 10 days, here's an abbreviated Classic Coming Attractions column with two of the reviews I promised in the last one (Errol Flynn: The Warner Bros. Western Collection and the Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection). I've also updated the new announcements although there's not been too much to report from the past two weeks. Some of the studios' January announcements should start to appear by the end of this month. Note that the classics release database has been updated to reflect the latest announcements.


Classic Reviews

We begin with Warner Bros.' recent release of Errol Flynn: The Warner Bros. Western Collection - a four-disc set containing Virginia City (1940), San Antonio (1945), Montana (1949), and Rocky Mountain (1950). Flynn starred in four other westerns for Warners (Dodge City in 1939, Santa Fe Trail in 1940, They Died with Their Boots On in 1942, and Silver River in 1948). Of these, only Silver River remains to be released on DVD. It had been intended for inclusion in this set, but problems with the available elements resulted in its delay until a future Flynn collection.

Errol Flynn: The Warner Bros. Western Collection

Santa Fe Trail has only been released in public domain versions so far; hopefully Warners will see fit to give it a proper studio release in the future too. Of the four westerns in the current box set, none rank with Flynn's best such as Dodge City and They Died with Their Boots On, but two are worthy entries (Virginia City and Rocky Mountain, both in black and white). Virginia City appeared soon after the hugely successful Dodge City and was actually hinted at in the final lines of the latter film. It is no sequel, however, even though Flynn returns with Alan Hale and Guinn Williams as his two saddlemates. Flynn plays a union officer who travels to Virginia City where he is tasked with stopping a shipment of gold from there to the south where it is intended to aid the Confederate war effort. Flynn is as dynamic as he always was in films from his peak period and here he is effectively paired with Randolph Scott as the leader guiding the Confederate gold. The plot is an interesting one, if a little protracted in the middle. Michael Curtiz directs the proceedings with his usual flair and the action sequences are excitingly staged (including some distinctive stunt work from Yakima Canutt). Unfortunately some casting choices are not that effective, particularly Miriam Hopkins as a Confederate sympathizer and Humphrey Bogart as a Mexican bandit with accent and pencil moustache. Bogart's efforts are often derided in this film and it's true that he's not right for the role, but he does give it a good try. The film provides rousing entertainment, but seems less than it actually is when compared with Dodge City. Rocky Mountain is a surprisingly effective character study of a group of Confederate soldiers sent to California to hook up with a gang of outlaws in order to control the western territory for the Confederacy. Aside from the concluding sequence - one rather reminiscent of They Died with Their Boots On and poignantly so in view of the film being Flynn's last western - the film is almost entirely set among the rocks of the title location (nicely shot entirely near Gallup, New Mexico). Patrice Wymore who would soon become Flynn's third wife provides the romantic interest, with the rest of the effective and familiar supporting cast including the likes of Scott Forbes, Guinn Williams, Dick Jones, Slim Pickens, Chubby Johnson, Sheb Wooley, and Yakima Canutt. The lesser entries in the set are San Antonio and Montana, both filmed in Technicolor. San Antonio, which steals its title music from Dodge City, seemed to have the right elements including a nice traditional plot, a rousing saloon fight (though somewhat contrived and not up to that in Dodge City), a good climactic gunfight, and the obvious merits of Alexis Smith, but it falls curiously flat. That may be in part due to a supporting cast that was far from traditional. The likes of S. Z. Sakall, Victor Francen, and Paul Kelly are all out of their element, much more so than Bogart ever was in Virginia City. Alexis Smith and Flynn team again in Montana where Flynn is a sheepman who wants to move his herd into cattle country. Smith, who plays a rancher intent in keeping Flynn out, brings a fair bit of energy to her characterization, but Flynn looks rather tired of it all at times and the plot suffers from a rather weak ending and mediocre action (Ray Enright was a reliable director, but hardly the man for the genre). Ian MacDonald and Lane Chandler add some western pedigree to the film, but the main bad guy as portrayed by Douglas Kennedy is not effectively used by the script. Warner Bros. has given the films a classy presentation on DVD. All are full frame as originally released theatrically and sport above average image quality. The two black and white films are sharp and well-defined with mild grain evident. Virginia City is particularly bright and clean while Rocky Mountain handles its difficult night-time sequences well. The Technicolor films both look very vibrant and fairly clean. Montana is somewhat the better of the two as it lacks the few minor registration issues that are evident on San Antonio. The mono sound on the set is typically good for a Warner release, with little to choose between any of the titles. In the supplement department, each title has been accorded the admirable “Warner Night at the Movies” treatment of selections of newsreels, trailers, cartoons, and shorts. In addition, however, we get audio commentaries by Flynn biographer Thomas McNulty on Rocky Mountain and by film historian Frank Thompson on Virginia City. Both are informative and effectively presented. Six of the Warner Santa Fe westerns are also included. These were two-reel westerns mainly starring Robert Shayne that Warner developed to make use of its extensive stock footage catalog. 1943's Oklahoma Outlaws, for example, drew heavily on 1939's The Oklahoma Kid with Shayne garbed in such a fashion that footage of James Cagney from the latter feature could be effectively used. The other titles included are Wagon Wheels West, Gun to Gun, Roaring Guns, Wells Fargo Days, and Trial by Trigger. Recommended.

There are several connections between five of the six westerns in the newly-released Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection. Three of them star Robert Taylor (Saddle the Wind, Many Rivers to Cross, The Law and Jake Wade); two co-star Eleanor Parker (Many Rivers to Cross, Escape from Fort Bravo); two feature Charles McGraw as a major heavy (Saddle the Wind, Cimarron); two feature Royal Dano in important secondary roles (Cimarron, Saddle the Wind); two are directed by John Sturges (Escape from Fort Bravo, The Law and Jake Wade); and three were photographed by Robert L. Surtees (Cimarron, The Law and Jake Wade, Escape from Fort Bravo).

Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection

All five of these titles were produced by MGM between 1953 and 1960, and all but Escape from Fort Bravo were released in CinemaScope and Metrocolor. The only duck out of water is The Stalking Moon starring Gregory Peck, produced by National General and released through Warner Bros. in 1968. Escape from Fort Bravo, Saddle the Wind, and The Law and Jake Wade are the class of the set, with Many Rivers to Cross not far behind. The Stalking Moon and Cimarron bring up the rear. Effectively filmed in Death Valley, Escape from Fort Bravo features a compelling tale about the escape of four Confederate prisoners from a Union outpost. It's buttressed by a typically strong performance by William Holden as the Union officer who attempts to recapture them. Eleanor Parker is very good as the woman who engineers the escape and William Demarest chips in with a fine performance as one of the escapees, providing comic relief with an edge. Even more notable is the taut manner in which director John Sturges orchestrates the action sequences, particularly the climactic one, making spectacular use of the desolate Death Valley locations. Saddle the Wind stars Robert Taylor as a gunfighter turned cattleman who, with his younger brother (John Cassavetes), operate a ranch that shares the range with a larger ranching concern owned by Donald Crisp. When Cassavetes kills a gunman looking to shoot Taylor, it sets in motion a chain of events that eventually pits the two brothers against each other. Of any of the films in this set, this one shows Taylor to best advantage. His more weathered look as he aged made the 1950s his most impressive period on the screen, and in Saddle the Wind, he very much looks the part of the still-effective but veteran westerner. Cassavetes is a good foil even if his method approach to his young gunman role seems somewhat out of place. Look for a memorable characterization by Royal Dano as a homesteader. The always-delightful Julie London provides the romantic interest, but is under-utilized by the film. The film's ending is very satisfying. The Law and Jake Wade also shows Taylor to advantage as a sheriff whose outlaw past puts him in jeopardy when he evens accounts with a former gang member (Richard Widmark) by breaking him out of jail. Taylor provides the calm core of the film while Widmark steals most of the attention with one of his effective Tommy Udo-like riffs. Director John Sturges again develops considerable suspense and makes excellent use of the film's Sierras foothills locations. In Many Rivers to Cross, Robert Taylor is a frontiersman on his way to the Pacific Northwest, but he is delayed in Kentucky by Eleanor Parker who decides he's the man for her. The film is basically a frontier farce with a fine script that blends the serious with the comedic. Taylor's laconic frontiersman is a pleasant characterization though I personally find him more effective in dramatic roles. Eleanor Parker is over the top at times although some very recognizable supporting faces (Victor McLaglen, James Arness, Alan Hale Jr., and Russ Tamblyn) provide plenty of diversion. The Stalking Moon finds Gregory Peck in the saddle as an army scout escorting, along with his best friend (Robert Forster), a former Apache captive (Eva Marie Saint) and her half-Indian son across the desert. In pursuit is the boy's father, an Indian renegade. The film generates considerable tension and an air of doom as the pursuer closes in, but it's barely enough to overcome a very slow and talky first half. The film reunited Peck with his To Kill a Mockingbird director Robert Mulligan, but Mulligan doesn't really seem to be all that comfortable with the rhythms needed to create a successful western. It's a decent effort, but only because Peck is in it. Cimarron is MGM's remake of the RKO 1931 version of Edna Ferber's novel about the American West 1890-1915. As with the original, the remake is a rather ponderous affair. The story is so broad and episodic that the film never grips one's attention save for the odd isolated sequence. The Oklahoma land rush is such a highlight, but it comes very early in the story and the film gradually deflates from that point on. Glenn Ford (as Cimarron) is an improvement over Richard Dix, but Maria Schell is a step back compared to Irene Dunne as Cim's wife - particularly so when Ford's character is off-screen for a protracted period and Schell must carry the picture alone. There are many familiar faces among the supporting cast (Anne Baxter, Henry Morgan, Charles McGraw, Edgar Buchanan, Mary Wickes, Aline McMahon, David Opatoshu, Russ Tamblyn) but few are allowed to create characters that interest us. Warner has given a fairly modest presentation to this set of films. Each is accompanied by only the theatrical trailer, and The Stalking Moon not even that. Escape from Fort Bravo looks the worst of the bunch on DVD. It's certainly quite watchable, but time has not been kind to its Ansco Color, with the 1.85:1 image subject to very inconsistent hues. There is also excessive grain and some dirt and debris. The other five titles all look quite nice with good colour reproduction and crisp images. There are some speckles and the odd scratch in evidence. Cimarron exhibits the odd edge effect, but the others look fine in that regard. Escape from Fort Bravo and Cimarron deliver Dolby Surround stereo mixes that offer some minor front separation effects but little else. The mono sound on the other four is in good shape. Recommended as a set, though if only one or two really interest you, they are available individually.


New Announcements

As mentioned, please note that the classic announcement database has been updated to reflect the following items.

Fox has now provided more details on its Murnau, Borzage and Fox set coming on December 9th. It has confirmed that it will be a 12-film collection including Murnau's Sunrise (1927) and City Girl (1930), and Borzage's 7th Heaven (1927), Bad Girl (1931), Street Angel (1928), Lucky Star (1929), Lazybones (1925), They Had To See Paris (1929), Song O' My Heart (1930), Liliom (1930), After Tomorrow (1932), and Young America (1932). 7th Heaven (newly remastered) will feature audio commentary by film historians Robert Birchard and Anthony Slide as well as a reconstruction of the lost Borzage film The River. Sunrise (also newly remastered) will offer both the Movietone version of the film and the European silent version as well as audio commentary by cinematographer John Bailey. The City Girl disc will include material on Murnau's lost 4 Devils - 4 Devils: Traces of a Lost Film, as well as the screenplay and a still gallery. Song O' My Heart will have both the full sound and the music and effects versions of the film. The set will also include a new feature-length documentary Murnau, Borzage and Fox as well as two exclusive hard-cover books one of which focuses solely on 4 Devils. The latter film is very high on Fox's classics priority list, but it remains lost, the negative and all prints seemingly having disappeared over the past 80 years. Meanwhile, Fox has confirmed that it continues to work on a restoration of 1933's Cavalcade and that Man Hunt, the 1941 drama about a hunter's efforts to kill Hitler, will have its release timed to appear with the theatrical release of the new Tom Cruise film Valkyries (also about a plot to kill Hitler and currently set for release in late December of this year). The often-requested title Viva Zapata is also high on Fox's priority list, but remains entangled in a legal dispute. Finally, the previously announced SE release of The Day the Earth Stood Still will also be made available in a Blu-ray version on the same date - December 2nd.

Kino presents Griffith Masterworks: Volume 2 on November 11th. This will be a five disc set containing Sally of the Sawdust (1925); Abraham Lincoln (1930)/The Struggle (1931); The Avenging Conscience (1914)/Edgar Allen Poe (1909, short); Way Down East (1920); and D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (three-part documentary by Kevin Brownlow and Peter Gill). Each disc will also be available separately. Sally of the Sawdust and Way Down East have previously been available on DVD from Image. Abraham Lincoln has only been available in lamentable PD versions. Kino's release of it and The Struggle both derive from HD remasters - Lincoln based on The Museum of Modern Art 35mm restoration, The Struggle from a Raymond Rohauer 35mm archive print.

Legend Films will have four releases on October 21st - Bride of the Monster (1956), Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961), The Devil Bat (1940), and Phantom Planet (1961). All will be single-disc releases containing both restored B&W and colourized versions.

The Milton Caniff Estate through its website (stevecanyondvd.blogspot.com) will be releasing the complete 1958-59 live action Steve Canyon TV series on DVD beginning on November 18th with The Complete Steve Canyon on TV: Volume One. It will contain the first 12 episodes in their correct running order with some accompanied by audio commentaries. Some 60-90 days later, Volume Two will be released (the next 12 episodes with some commentaries) and a further 60-90 days after that, Volume Three is planned (the final 10 episodes with some commentaries). Although the first two volumes will have some other extras, the third volume will also contain the bulk of the supplementary content for this endeavor. For the time being, the releases will only be available through the website noted above.

Timeless Media will release Wagon Train - Going West on October 7th. It will be a three-disc set containing 12 black and white episodes from the popular Wagon Train TV series. These particular episodes star John McIntyre as the wagon boss, with guest appearances by the likes of Leonard Nimoy, Jane Wyatt, Brian Keith, Janice Paige, Dennis Hopper, Eddie Albert, and Dean Jones. Following on November 4th is Wagon Train: The Complete Color Season. This will be a 16-disc set containing the 32 90-minute color episodes from the series' 7th season plus a selection of 16 episodes from the other seasons (all black and white). New interviews with series regulars Robert Fuller and Denny Scott Miller will be included.

VCI will be bringing the Forgotten Noir and Crime Collection: Volume 4 to DVD on November 18th. It will comprise three discs with three features on each. The titles are: Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard (1950), Radar Secret Service (1950), Motor Patrol (1950), Mr. District Attorney (1941), Western Pacific Agent (1950), Highway 13 (1948), Treasure of Monte Cristo (1951), Roaring City (1949), and Sky Liner (1949). The other November offering will be Burke's Law: Season 1, Volume 2 also on the 18th (16 episodes on 4 discs). VCI will also have the last of the four Dick Tracy serials - Dick Tracy Vs. Crime Inc. (1941) - on October 21st.

Well, once again that's all for now. I'll return again soon.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com
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