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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #39 and New Announcements (continued)

Equally worthy of attention is Warner Bros.' Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory: Volume 2, which collects seven films together. The Pirate, Words and Music, and That's Dancing each get their own disc while That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans are paired on a double-feature disc as are Royal Wedding and The Belle of New York.

Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory: Volume 2

Each of the five discs can also be purchased separately. There's something here for virtually every musical fan. Do you like music and dancing in general? Then That's Dancing (á la That's Entertainment) provides a sampling of many of the best numbers from numerous MGM and other studio film musicals of the last century. Are you a Judy Garland or Gene Kelly fan? Then The Pirate provides a hearty dose of both together, not to mention the appearance of the Nicholas Brothers. Fred Astaire aficionados will appreciate a pair of his films in The Belle of New York and Royal Wedding (the former also featuring the sensational Vera-Ellen and the latter Fred's amazing ceiling and walls dance with the film itself thankfully rescued from Public Domain hell). Mario Lanza lovers get a pair of his films with Kathryn Grayson (That Midnight Kiss and The Toast of New Orleans) while those who appreciate composer/lyricist biopics that feature plenty of their subjects' top tunes even if the history is barely recognizable will revel in Words and Music (Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart and Tom Drake as Richard Rodgers). You'll also revel in Warners' generally fine work in revitalizing the original Technicolor films (though not to Ultra Resolution standards) while the previously (on laserdisc) spotty-looking That's Dancing also is much improved (though still at the mercy of the variable quality of its original film clips). The mono sound is as usual in quite acceptable shape while That's Dancing has received a Dolby 5.1 remaster that adds some sense of dynamicism to the music though little directionality. The extras exhibit typical Warner vintage goodness with several new items especially worth noting - audio commentaries for Words and Music and The Pirate (John Fricke's work here is excellent), a new documentary profile of Mario Lanza, and the Stanley Donen edition of TCM's "Private Screenings". Highly recommended.

Katharine Hepburn: 100th Anniversary Collection

Katharine Hepburn: 100th Anniversary Collection is a welcome release from Warner Bros., but one gets the impression that it was a bit of a last-minute inspiration. Most of Hepburn's best work has already been released on DVD and what we get here, while it does present a not unreasonable cross section of her career, seems second tier in both film content and attention to DVD quality. Morning Glory (1933) and Undercurrent (1946) are the exceptions at least in terms of film quality. The former is a delightful story of the New York stage that's well written and yields an appealing Hepburn performance that resulted in her first Best Actress Oscar award. Undercurrent is an atmospheric film noir that relies on solid work by Hepburn and Robert Taylor to elevate a familiar plot. Somewhat less satisfactory are the offbeat Sylvia Scarlett (1935) despite the presence of Cary Grant and the miscast Dragon Seed (1944) which at least has a good Pearl Buck novel as its basis and the always interesting Walter Huston. The Corn Is Green (1979) is a decent made-for-TV version of the Emlyn Williams play, but it won't make you forget the Bette Davis 1945 theatrical film. Without Love (1945) is a film that I go back and forth on, partly because of its well-used wartime accommodation shortage premise. If I haven't seen a Hepburn-Tracy film in a while, it looks pretty good, but compared back-to-back with their best efforts together, it's a lesser film. None of these films looks sparkling on DVD. Morning Glory and Sylvia Scarlett appear to have had mimimal clean-up done while Undercurrent looks rather soft and murky at times. The Corn Is Green looks presentable given late 1970s colour film stocks. Dragon Seed and Without Love sport the strongest transfers, offering generally sharp, bright images. The mono sound is in good shape as is typical of Warner releases. While the extras are a fine package of vintage shorts and cartoons, the lack of anything new of direct relevance to Hepburn herself is a noticeable omission given the 100th anniversary nature of the set.

Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection

Warner's most recent classic release is the Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection. This is a superb presentation of the four major let's-put-on-a-show musicals that the pair made during the 1939-1943 period - Babes in Arms, Babes on Broadway, Strike Up the Band, and Girl Crazy. The films are only available in the set, not as individual titles. None of the original film material for these films still exists, so they don't look as pristine on DVD as many of the MGM musicals that Warners has released, but they're still fine efforts that do the films proud given the source limitations. For those who may be unfamiliar with the films themselves, their most obvious characteristic is the energy that Garland and especially Rooney bring to their roles. The two were also clearly very close friends who performed well together and that communicates well from the screen. The stories may be old hat, but Rooney and Garland make them seem fresh and the songs and production numbers are first rate. Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy are my favorites, but you can't go wrong with any of the four films in the set. The extras in this set are copious. Each film gets a new heart-felt introduction by Mickey Rooney and excellent audio commentaries are provide by musicals historian John Fricke on Babes in Arms and Girl Crazy. There are various vintage shorts and cartoons included with each disc as well as a generous selection of audio bonuses including six radio shows with Rooney and Garland. A fifth disc contains the Mickey Rooney edition of TCM's "Private Screenings", a Judy Garland Songbook that presents a chronological cavalcade of 21 musical numbers accessible individually or all together, and a trailer gallery of the ten films that Rooney and Garland appeared in together. This disc is packaged in a hardback book that provides liner notes on all four films as well as a detailed listing of the set's supplements and a generous selection of poster art. Finally there's a set of 20 b&w production stills contained in their own folder. All this is packaged in a sturdy slipcase. Warners obviously made a special effort to give Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland a classy treatment on DVD and they have succeeded admirably. Very highly recommended.

Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938

My final words in this section are reserved for Popeye the Sailor: 1933-1938 - a release that Warners promised last year and has now delivered as advertised. The presentation follows the same approach used with the Looney Tunes sets - four discs containing 60 cartoons and a generous collection of supplementary material, much of it original. These cartoons were originally made by the Max Fleischer studio and released theatrically by Paramount. The latter's logos have been returned to the cartoons and the restoration work done makes the b&w cartoons (and two expanded colour ones) look marvelous as they invoke childhood memories of first seeing them on television. Twenty-one of them also feature audio commentaries by a variety of animators, historians and voice artists. Two new documentaries trace Popeye's animation history and that of early animation history in general, while a number of shorter featurettes focus on the various Popeye cartoon characters. Included too are a number of early Fleischer "Out of the Inkwell" shorts. This is essential material for animation enthusiasts and as packaged by Warners, highly desirable. Recommended. A second volume was expected late this year, but a lack of any announcement so far suggests a delay into 2008.


Westerns Update

Well, the westerns release database was relatively easy to update as the titles on the horizon are paltry indeed. They are restricted to a few Gene Autry westerns from Image, the odd western title sprinkled among a few upcoming box sets (Annie Oakley in the Warner Barbara Stanwyck set, A Big Hand for the Little Lady in Warners' Leading Ladies set, several titles in the Ford at Fox set), and a couple of western TV series seasons (The Wild Wild West and Daniel Boone). Many of the titles rumoured a year ago are still rumoured, including Raintree County and How the West Was Won.

We have had a few western DVD releases over the past couple of months and herewith some comments.

3:10 from Yuma

3:10 from Yuma has been reissued by Sony as a tie-in to the new theatrical remake. The first DVD version appeared five years ago sporting widescreen and fullscreen transfers and a couple of trailers for other westerns. The reissue features only the widescreen transfer billed as newly remastered, the film's original theatrical trailer, and a trailer for the remake with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. The original, made in 1957, starred Glenn Ford as an outlaw in jail for murder and robbery, awaiting transport by train to the Yuma territorial prison. Van Heflin co-stars as a rancher who takes on the task of seeing that Ford makes it from the local jail to the Yuma train in the face of Ford's gang members who are intent on springing Ford free. The film, tautly directed by Delmer Daves, is both a suspenseful action film as well as a psychological battle of wits between the Heflin and Ford characters, the latter being a particularly cunning and thoughtful adversary. The film already looked very crisp and clear on the original DVD and there is little discernible difference in the reissue to my eye. The only differences in the audio are the inclusion of a French mono track on the reissue and the dropping of Spanish and Portuguese subtitles. These changes along with the inclusion of the original's theatrical trailer and preview for the remake are not enough to warrant a purchase if you already have the original release. If you don't have the latter, by all means go for this new version. It's recommended to first-time buyers of this title.

Gunsmoke: The First Season

Fans of Gunsmoke have been tantalized by Paramount and CBS over the past few years with releases of made-for-TV Gunsmoke movies and 50th anniversary collections of selected Gunsmoke episodes. Their reward has now appeared with Gunsmoke: The First Season, which provides all 39 half-hour episodes on six discs very efficiently packaged in a single clear keep-case. The half-hour format in which Gunsmoke debuted (it didn't move to an hour-long program until 1962) was typical of the TV westerns of the mid-1950s, but Gunsmoke was the first such series to go beyond the B series western type of story. Many of the situations portrayed were adult in nature although extensive character and dramatic development was still limited. Still the series' four main characters (James Arness as Matt Dillon, Dennis Weaver as Chester, Amanda Blake as Kitty, Milburn Stone as Doc. Adams) had some depth and complexity in themselves as well as amongst each other and many of the series' best episodes arose as much out of that as due to some external event or character. It's easy to sit back and pass away an evening with four or five episodes worth of the central characters as a result. Paramount/CBS also make it easy with their standard high level of image quality on TV releases. I viewed a broad selection of episodes with at least one from every disc and despite a disclaimer on the package that some episodes may have been edited from their original network versions, I detected no truncated episodes nor any time compression. The only supplement appears to be four sponsor spots found on the first disc. Recommended.


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