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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #57 and New Announcements

Welcome to the latest edition of Classic Coming Attractions.

I have the usual combination of reviews and new announcements for you this time. The reviews include coverage of classic titles (Warner Archive's Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, Pride of the Marines, The Verdict, and Princess O'Rourke; Sony's Summertree, Warner Bros.' Directed by John Ford); westerns (Warner Archive's Colorado Territory and The Command, Paramount's Bonanza: The Official First Season - Volumes 1 and 2); and British TV series which are not necessarily classic, but a pleasure of mine (Acorn Media's Life on Mars: Series 1 and Doc Martin: Series 2). I'm pleased to be able to report that the Warner Archive titles I've looked at this time are generally much better in quality than most of the ones reported on in my previous column.

The new announcements section is light this time, although I have separated some forthcoming release news that I think fans will find of particular interest into a separate classic news section immediately following these introductory words. Please note that the classic announcements database has been updated accordingly.

As a look forward, classic fans can expect renewed coverage of classic announcements and availability in regions beyond Region 1 in future editions of this column. This will mark a return to coverage offered in the early days of the column, but eventually dropped due to the increased Region 1 classic release activity that began half a dozen years ago but which has now waned somewhat.

Now, on with the show!


Classic News

Classic fans will be pleased to know that Warners has just recently been able to complete clearing the rights to two titles long in demand by fans. No Time for Sergeants (1958, with Andy Griffith) and The Breaking Point (1950, with John Garfield) are both now planned for pressed DVD release sometime in 2010. The studio hopes that No Time for Sergeants will have Andy Griffith's participation in appropriate supplementary material. The Breaking Point might get slotted into Warners' Film Noir Collection: Volume 5 (which is a definite go for 2010), but will more likely see a separate release.

Warner Bros. also continues to work actively on The Hanging Tree (1959, with Gary Cooper). There is much more work to do on the photochemical restoration for the original elements, but the results should be worth the wait. A pressed DVD release is currently planned, but no release timing has yet been set.

Sony has created a new classics website at which fans can get updates on the studio's plans with regard to its classic Columbia titles. At the moment it consists of a blog, a short discussion of titles in planning for release, and information on titles already released. According to Sony's Grover Crisp, as reported at the Home Theater Forum, there are apparently plans to introduce some sort of mechanism to allow fans to interact with the site so that they can get answers to questions they may have. The address is: http://www.sonypictures.com/homevideo/columbiaclassics.

In other Sony news that updates the timing of some releases we already were expecting, the Rita Hayworth box set has been definitely delayed into early 2010 partly to give more attention to the supplement package, but also recognizing the healthy slate of other classic releases from the studio in the final quarter of this year. The titles to be included are: Tonight and Every Night (1945), Salome (1953), Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), Cover Girl (1944), and Gilda (1946). The latter two, both previously released on DVD, are being restored and remastered for this new release. It would be nice to see Sony give them a Blu-ray release at the same time, although there's no suggestion that that's going to happen. Again according to Sony's Grover Crisp as reported at the Home Theater Forum, Hayworth's The Lady from Shanghai will receive a new restoration in 2010 and may get a re-release at some point though nothing is scheduled as of now. A possible second Rita Hayworth box set is likely very much dependent upon how well the first one sells.

For reasons similar to the Hayworth set, the second Columbia film noir set has been moved back to a 2010 release also (the first volume is due out on November 3rd). This second set is expected to include: Pushover (1954), Nightfall (1956), The Brothers Rico (1957), City of Fear (1959), and In a Lonely Place (1950).

There are discussions on various internet fora of another exclusive set from Universal. Supposedly coming on October 15th and exclusive to the TCM website this time is the Universal Cult Horrors Collection. The set would include the much-requested Murders in the Zoo as well as House of Horrors, The Mad Ghoul, The Mad Doctor of Market Street, and The Strange Case of Doctor Rx. It would apparently retail for $50, although there has been no official announcement of the release as yet. One presumes the release will be of pressed rather than burnt discs. If the release does appear and past history is any indication, it may be a lengthy wait before it makes its way from being an exclusive to a wider release. For example, the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive (The Black Cat, Man Made Monster, Horror Island, Night Monster, Captive Wild Woman) was a Best Buy exclusive two years ago if I remember correctly and it's only getting wide distribution as of this September 15th. Mind you, one wonders how many people will know about it. Universal told The Digital Bits that it wasn't making review copies available, so it's unlikely to get much publicity beyond word-of-mouth and internet chatter amongst enthusiasts.


Classic Reviews

Warner Bros. was well known for a series of prestige historical biography films made during the 1936-1940 period and directed by William Dieterle. Paul Muni is most associated with these films (he starred in the likes of The Story of Louis Pasteur, The Life of Emile Zola, and Juarez), but Edward G. Robinson also appeared in two fine entries (A Dispatch from Reuters and Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet).

Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet

Viewed some 70 years after they first appeared, all these films still offer good entertainment, but Robinson's restrained portrayals allow his films to remain the more compelling ones of the bunch. That is particularly true in the case of Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, which is now available as a Warner Archive release. Robinson's portrayal of Ehrlich, the research doctor whose work led to medical breakthroughs in the treatment of Tuberculosis, Diphtheria, and Syphilis, is low key and measured for the most part, yet with enough of the old Robinson fire at times to convey the strength of will that Ehrlich had to have in order to overcome the bureaucratic and scientific obstacles that seem to dog any approach out of the mainstream. Robinson later stated that the Ehrlich role was one of his favorite ones from his long career and it shows. Strong support is provided by Otto Kruger as Ehrlich's long-time associate Dr. Emil von Behring, and also effective is Ruth Gordon as Ehrlich's wife. Supporting player watchers will have a good time as the likes of Donald Crisp, Maria Ouspenskaya, Montagu Love, Donald Meek, Charles Halton, Sig Rumann, Henry O'Neill, Harry Davenport, and a host of Warner stock bit players are all in evidence. The film was a major production during the winter of 1939-40 for Warners and it shows in the intelligent script (contributed to by John Huston), strong production values, the atmospheric camera work under the direction of James Wong Howe, and a respectful score by Max Steiner. Due to its focus on syphilis, the film experienced some difficulties in obtaining certification from the Production Code Authority, but it was cleared for release after producer Hal Wallis successfully argued that the focus was on the life of Ehrlich rather than solely the work on the cure for Syphilis. The Warner Archive DVD-R presentation (full frame as originally shown) suffers from speckles and scratches, but otherwise looks pretty good. Black levels are fairly deep and contrast is fine. Image sharpness is fairly consistent with only a couple of somewhat soft sequences. The mono sound is in good shape. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

The story of Al Schmid, a welder in Philadelphia who joins the marines after the U.S. enters World War II and is blinded by a grenade while killing 200 Japanese soldiers during a night attack on Guadalcanal, was dramatized by Warner Bros. as Pride of the Marines in 1945.

Pride of the Marines

Based on the book "Al Schmid, Marine" by Roger Butterfield and using a screenplay by Albert Maltz who was nominated for an Academy Award for his efforts, the film tells Schmid's story in a straightforward and chronological fashion, with a strong emphasis on both his life and relationship with his future wife Ruth before the war, and his initial difficulty in accepting the ramifications of his blindness for returning to civilian life. Whatever their accuracy, the pre-war scenes seem rather contrived, establishing a mood of typical rose-coloured-glasses film biography that the rest of the film has to struggle hard to overcome. Schmid is portrayed by John Garfield who delivers a strong effort but not a completely persuasive one as the typical Garfield tough-guy mannerisms tend to detract from the immersive performance that the role needs. More impressive is Eleanor Parker in the thankless role of Ruth; through sincerity and restraint, she manages to transcend what could be just a clichéd part of a woman who stands by her man. Dane Clark is also effective as Schmid's marine buddy. The film has a polished look and benefits from some location shooting in Philadelphia and San Diego. Reflecting the script and Garfield's central performance, the overall impact, however, is never quite as inspirational as intended. The Warner Archive DVD-R presentation is first rate on the other hand. The title looks as though some restoration work was performed on it, perhaps in anticipation of its inclusion in the John Garfield pressed-DVD set that never materialized. The image (full frame as originally shown) is crisp and bright with excellent contrast and looks quite clean. The mono sound is in good shape. There are no supplements. Garfield fans should be happy with this one, but otherwise, I'd stick to a rental.

Princess O'Rourke is a pleasant though in the end forgettable 1943 WB comedy starring Olivia De Havilland that is available in the Warner Archive. She plays Maria, a princess in exile from an unidentified European country that has been occupied by the Nazis.

Princess O'Rourke

Finding Maria bored with life in New York and disdainful of suitors that he has lined up for her, her uncle (Charles Coburn) books her on an overnight flight to San Francisco for a change of scene. The plans go awry, however, when the flight is turned back by bad weather and Maria, who has taken sleeping pills in order to overcome her dislike of flying, finds herself in the care of the plane's pilot Eddie O'Rourke (Bob Cummings). Love ensues, but the difference in Eddie and Maria's stations in life leads to extreme complications. The film was both written and directed by Norman Krasna. It starts off quite promisingly with De Havilland showing a deft hand at light comedy, aided by the always-amusing Coburn. The initial situations with Cummings are in the best screwball comedy tradition, with some good support from Jack Carson and Jane Wyman as Cummings pal and pal's wife respectively. Once Maria and Eddie agree to marry, however, the film starts to lose steam and the final sequences are more ridiculous than anything else as they gradually fritter away the good will generated by the first three-quarters of the film. The difficulties may have been recognized by Warner Bros. as the studio delayed the film's release for a year after production was completed. Interestingly, De Havilland apparently rejected the role of Maria when first offered to her, going on suspension as a result, but finally agreeing to do it. The delay that this imposed may have been the reason that Fred MacMurray who was initially cast as Eddie, had to drop out due to commitments at his home studio Paramount. The Warner Archive DVD-R release (full frame as originally shown) looks quite presentable. Although some softness is evident at times, the image is quite clear and image detail is above average. Some speckles and scratches are evident, but not a concern. The mono sound is clear with only a trace of hiss at times. There are no supplements. Recommended as a rental.

A disappointment of a film, Summertree (a 1970 Columbia Pictures release) is of interest only to note the quality performers in its cast rather than any real chemistry they generate.

Summertree

The film (produced by Kirk Douglas and directed by Anthony Newley) stars Michael Douglas as a young man named Jerry who mulls over his options when he receives his draft notice at the time of the Vietnam War. Bearing on his decisions are his mother and father (Barbara Bel Geddes and Jack Warden respectively) and his girlfriend (Brenda Vaccaro). Jerry seems like a rather feckless sort as he wanders around playing his guitar, thinking over his past (symbolized by the tree house of his childhood in his parent's back yard - the "summertree" of the title), romancing his girl, not communicating with his parents, and playing at being a "big brother". The film's real problem is an uneven script that manages to waste one dramatic revelation (a secret of Jerry's girlfriend) and to subvert another (Jerry's attempt to avoid his draft summons) through inconsistent actions of the characters, particularly his father. The film's ending is telegraphed well before it actually comes. Cast-wise, the work of Brenda Vaccaro is far and away the most notable. The film actually seems to come alive when she's on screen. In the lead role, Michael Douglas projects some energy, but it isn't productively channeled. Sony has released the film as part of its Martini Movies line, an even more bizarre inclusion than usual - although one could justify it by saying that you'll need a handful of martinis to get through the film. For all the film's shortcomings, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is excellent. Colour fidelity is very good and image sharpness is impressive. The mono sound is clear and clean. The theatrical trailer is the only supplement.

Directed by John Ford is Peter Bogdanovich's tribute to one of America's pantheon film directors.

Directed by John Ford

It was first prepared in 1971, drawing upon interviews with Ford himself and key Ford stars such as John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart and featuring narration by Orson Welles. Thirty-five years later in 2006, Bogdanovich updated the earlier work with new interviews with directors Clint Eastwood, Walter Hill, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg plus related material featuring Katharine Hepburn, Maureen O'Hara, and Harry Carey Jr. This new 110-minute version is a real treasure trove of information and insight on Ford, all presented in a very accessible manner. It is not a chronological biography, but more an assemblage of material organized by the different aspects and themes of Ford's films. A good balance of expository material, anecdotes, and film clips is maintained throughout. The image of Warners' DVD release (full frame as originally presented) is in great shape. Both the newer material and the older 1971 portions blend well, with the colour of all interview segments looking quite consistent in terms of brightness and fidelity. As one might expect, there is more variation evident in the quality of the various film clips employed, most of which are in black and white as originally shot. The mono sound is clean and clear. There are no supplements on the disc. Recommended.

After their success together with Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre found themselves frequently teamed by Warner Bros. in the mid-1940s. One such pairing was 1946's The Verdict.

The Verdict

In it, Greenstreet is Scotland Yard superintendent Grodman whose work leads to the conviction and hanging of a man who later is proven to be innocent. Grodman is forced to resign and his position is taken a rival detective (George Coulouris) whom he detests. A new case - one involving an apparent locked-room murder in a building adjacent to where Grodman lives - offers him a chance to redeem himself. Lorre appears as an artist comrade of Greenstreet's, but their scenes together lack some of the chemistry we expect, partly due to a script that doesn't have the interchanges of dialogue that highlighted their best work. The film itself is a reasonably satisfying mystery tale with an effective resolution, however. The 1890 London setting is atmospheric if obviously set-bound and Don Siegel in his first outing as a director moves the story along briskly. The Warner Archive DVD-R (full frame as originally presented) is passable. There are numerous speckles and scratches, and in the outdoor scenes which are typically fog-enshrouded, the image looks murky at times with shadow detail suffering as a result. Indoor scenes are notably better though still not as crisp as the best classic DVD releases. The mono sound is quite clear with only some minor hiss evident. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended as a rental.

The highly-regarded Humphrey Bogart film, High Sierra, has been remade by Warner Bros. at least twice - as Colorado Territory in 1948 and as I Died a Thousand Times in 1955.

I Died a Thousand Times

I've taken a look at the remakes, both now available in the Warner Archive. I Died a Thousand Times is pretty much a scene-for-scene re-enactment of the original, with Jack Palance delivering a typically intense performance as veteran crook Roy Earle who is sprung by a former boss in order to carry out one last big job. Shelley Winters plays the Ida Lupino role of the woman who gradually latches onto Earle in the course of planning and carrying out the robbery. In one respect, I Died a Thousand Times improves on the original - by its more expansive evocation of the power of the mountains. This is partly a reflection of the CinemaScope image, but the script seems to emphasize the strong kinship between the mountains and Earle's character more concisely too. Raoul Walsh directed High Sierra with great energy, and I Died a Thousand Times director Stuart Heisler is not usually recognized as being in the same league, but he does make successful use of the widescreen throughout and his staging of the climactic car chase up the mountain is particularly well done. Look for Earl Holliman and Lee Marvin as Palance's two young accomplices (improvements on Alan Curtis and Arthur Kennedy in the original). The Warner Archive DVD-R release provides a 2.55:1 anamorphic presentation that is best watched on a smaller screen. Projected on larger screens (greater than 45" or so), the image lacks some sharpness and video grain is intrusive at times although the grandeur of the mountainous backdrops and wide-open desert areas remains impressive. Colour fidelity and brightness is quite good. The stereo sound is clear and clean, and offers some decent directionality. The only supplement is the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

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