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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Hollywood's Golden Year - 1939 (continued)


With the presence of Frank Capra, Columbia's stock had risen substantially throughout the 1930s, although it did not have as ambitious a schedule of films as most of the major studios. The studio had relied little on a stable of contract stars, but that had begun to change by 1939. The leading players were Cary Grant (who split his time with RKO), Jean Arthur, Melvyn Douglas, and up-and-comers Rita Hayworth, William Holden, and Glenn Ford. Columbia still looked to Capra, but that relationship was nearing its end. Columbia retains the DVD rights to its own films. In addition to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington mentioned above, the year's top releases also (only one of them on DVD) included:

Golden Boy - From the stage play about a violinist turned boxer, this film gave William Holden his big break. Also starring Barbara Stanwyck.

Let Us Live - A well-written and acted drama about two men wrongly accused and convicted for murder. Henry Fonda and Alan Baxter starred, and John Brahm directed.

The Man They Could Not Hang - A B picture, but a good one. With Boris Karloff as a doctor working on restoring life to the dead.

Only Angels Have Wings - Director Howard Hawks at his best, with Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, and Richard Barthelmess. Available on DVD from Columbia and highly recommended.


As with Paramount, Universal found it hard to make money in the 1930s and only finally managed to get out of the red by 1939. Much of the company's product was composed of routine programmers and the studio was home to few top stars or directors. Heading the list was the young musical star Deanna Durbin, serial star Buster Crabbe, recent arrivals (from other studios) Marlene Dietrich and W.C. Fields, and old reliables Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, and Bela Lugosi who split their time between Universal and several other studios. Universal retains the DVD rights to its own films. Among the year's notable titles (only one of them on DVD) were:

Destry Rides Again - James Stewart stars as the slow-talking, pacifist sheriff in this wonderful comic-western. With Marlene Dietrich and a must-see. Available on DVD and recommended.

Son of Frankenstein - Basil, Boris, and Bela in the fine-looking and entertaining third entry in the Frankenstein series from Universal.

Three Smart Girls Grow Up - This was a fine sequel to 1936's Three Smart Girls and again starred Deanna Durbin. The bland Robert Cummings and William Lundigan provided male support. Deanna's other picture for the year was First Love wherein she received her first screen kiss, from Robert Stack.

Tower of London - Basil and Boris again, in a juicy retelling of Shakespeare's Richard III with a fine supporting cast including Vincent Price.

You Can't Cheat an Honest Man - Good W.C. Fields nonsense starring and written by the great man. Edgar Bergen and his wooden pals co-star.

United Artists

Unlike the major studios, United Artists, begun by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith in 1919, became mainly a distribution company for a number of independent producers during the 1930s. Among these producers were Walt Disney, David O. Selznick, Samuel Goldwyn, Walter Wanger, Alexander Korda, and Hal Roach; all (except for Disney who had switched to RKO in 1937) were active through United Artists in 1939. Of Mice and Men (Roach), Stagecoach (Wanger), and Wuthering Heights (Goldwyn) were mentioned above in respect to their Academy Award nominations. Several other highlights are listed below. DVD rights to United Artists films have become fragmented over the years. Some films have fallen into the public domain, but generally, Selznick titles are owned by Disney who recently reached an agreement with MGM to release some of the films; Wanger titles are generally controlled by WB; Goldwyn and Korda titles are controlled by MGM; and Roach titles have historically been released on DVD by Image.

The Four Feathers (Alexander Korda) - The definitive version with John Clements, Ralph Richardson, and C. Aubrey Smith. A grand action-adventure in Technicolor.

Intermezzo, A Love Story (David Selznick) - Ingrid Bergman's introduction to North America, with Leslie Howard. Short and sweet.

Made for Each Other (David Selznick) - Soap opera, and first rate with James Stewart and Carole Lombard. A public domain title available from several sources including Madacy. Not recommended.

The Real Glory (Samuel Goldwyn) - Gary Cooper and David Niven star in this action film in the Philippines. Directed by Henry Hathaway.

The Rest

There are, of course, even more 1939 titles well worth seeing. Ted Sennett's "Hollywood's Golden Year, 1939" is a good source for some of these. The emphasis there, as in the suggestions above, is on A-titles. There are also numerous B-films and serials worth looking into. Many of the B-films were made as entries in the various series being produced at the time - Andy Hardy (MGM), Blondie (Columbia), Charlie Chan (Fox), Dr. Kildare (MGM), Mr. Moto (Fox), and numerous westerns including Hopalong Cassidy (Paramount) and The Three Mesquiteers (Republic) - to name just some of them. In the case of B-films produced by the major studios, candidature to appear on DVD seems unlikely. On the other hand, B-films from the lesser studios that have disappeared as corporate entities over time are more likely to appear. Most of such titles are in the public domain, as are some serials (and some British films), and a few are already showing up on DVD. Here are the rest of the 1939 films that are currently available. A few additional titles may be available on DVD-R from various small distributors or specialty groups, but these are not listed here.

Film Title Company Comments
Arizona Kid, The Republic Roy Rogers western. DVD from Good Times coming on November 4.
Buck Rogers Universal Serial in 12 chapters. DVD from VCI.
Bulldog Drummond's Secret Police Paramount Image release recommended. Part of a double bill DVD including Bulldog Drummond Escapes. Also available from Alpha.
Days of Jesse James Republic DVD from Roan Group. Part of Roy Rogers Collection, Volume 1. Recommended. Also forthcoming from Good Times.
Eternally Yours United Artists David Niven and Loretta Young. DVD from Alpha.
Gorilla, The Fox The Ritz Brothers and Bela Lugosi. DVD from Roan Group. Combined with Nabonga. Also available from Gotham.
Gulliver's Travels Paramount Dave Fleischer animated version. Image release recommended. Also available from Wellspring, Good Times, and Alpha.
Home on the Prairie Republic Part of The Gene Autry Collection from Image and recommended.
Honeymoon in Bali Paramount Modest Fred MacMurray romantic comedy. DVD from Front Row.
Human Monster, The Britain DVD from Roan Group. Combined with Mystery Liner in an Edgar Wallace double bill.
In Old Caliente Republic Roy Rogers western. DVD from Gotham.
Jamaica Inn Britain Alfred Hitchcock. Image (Kino) release recommended. Also available from Whirlwind combined with Rich and Strange, and from Delta.
Mandrake the Magician Columbia Serial in 12 chapters. DVD from VCI. Recommended.
Moon over Harlem Meteor DVD from All Day. Part of the Edgar G. Ulmer Collection, Volume 1.
Mr. Moto's Last Warning Fox One of the better Motos. DVD from Gotham.
Mr. Wong in Chinatown Monogram Roan Group release recommended. Part of Mr. Wong Collection. Also available from Alpha.
Murder in the Night (aka Murder in Soho) Britain Mystery starring Jack La Rue. DVD from Alpha (Coming Nov. 4)
Mystery of Mr. Wong Monogram Roan Group release recommended. Part of Mr. Wong Collection. Also available from Alpha.
Nancy Drew, Reporter WB Roan Group, combined with The Kennel Murder Case, preferred. Also available from Gotham.
Phantom Creeps, The Universal Universal serial in 12 chapters. Available from Alpha, Vintage, and Whirlwind. None are particularly good.
Rough Riders Round-Up Republic Roy Rogers western. DVD from Gotham and Navarre.
Roving Tumbleweeds Republic Part of The Gene Autry Collection from Image and recommended.
Rules of the Game, The France Jean Renoir. Coming on DVD from Criterion in early 2004.
South of the Border Republic Part of The Gene Autry Collection from Image and recommended.
Torture Ship PRC Mad scientist tale with Lyle Talbot. DVD from Alpha.
Zorro's Fighting Legion Republic Serial in 12 chapters. Available from Alpha, Madacy, and Image (best bet).

And a Few Recommendations

So, suppose you're new to 1939 films, where should you start from what's already available and what should you look for in the future? Several years ago, I compiled my own evaluation of the best films on DVD by decade, one that combined film quality with transfer excellence and supplementary content. At that time, two 1939 films made it into my top ten for the 1930s - WB's DVD release of The Wizard of Oz and Columbia's release of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. It's safe to say that both would still be in my top ten of the decade, but there have been no releases of 1939 films since then that would likely have cracked the line-up. If I had to recommend three other films and a serial for 1939 that are currently available on DVD and well worth having, I'd go with Only Angels Have Wings, Stagecoach (despite the marginal transfer), and The Women as the films and Zorro's Fighting Legion (from Image) as the serial. And (aside from a remastered Gone with the Wind hopefully next year) if I had to recommend five films and one serial to really look out for or to lobby the studios for as future DVD releases, I'd go with Dodge City, The Roaring Twenties, Jesse James, Beau Geste, and Gunga Din as the films and Daredevils of the Red Circle (from Republic) as the serial. I'm a sucker for series films and I'd eagerly pick up any that the studios would offer. That means I'm greatly anticipating the two Fox Sherlock Holmes films (early next year from MPI). As for other series films from the major studios, aside from perhaps some Andy Hardy titles, I'm not holding my breath.

New Classic Release Announcements

As we get well into the final quarter of the year, new classic announcements continue to be modest. I'll list the results alphabetically by studio. Note that the Classic Release Database has been updated. As usual, thanks to several readers for very helpful tips. You know who you are.

The American Movie Classics (AMC) channel will be offering a number of two-disc movie and television series sets. The movie sets will contain four films plus some supplementary content from AMC's archives. The films are all the usual public domain suspects so I won't list the individual titles. The collections will have themes, so there will be a Roger Corman Series, two Bela Lugosi series, a Boris Karloff series, and two cult classics series. The television sets will contain 14 episodes on the two discs and will include the likes of The Lucy Show, Dragnet, Abbott & Costello, Martin & Lewis, The Red Skelton Show, and The Lone Ranger. The price point on all these sets is low, so I wouldn't anticipate any improvement over what's already available for such titles.

Artisan has a number of releases scheduled for December 16th. Chief among them is the company's first release from the library of Republic serials it controls. The title will be The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), one likely to attract lots of attention due to its fine reputation. One hopes that more care will go into this than went into the company's recent Laurel & Hardy DVD, but initial indications are not promising. Other December 16th releases are The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955, with Gary Cooper), The Enforcer (1951, with Humphrey Bogart), Flat Top (1952, with Sterling Hayden), The Men (1950, with Marlon Brando), and The Pawnbroker (1965, with Rod Steiger). The first of these was a Cinemascope picture in colour and it will be interesting to see how well Artisan handles it.

Columbia will have the John Le Carré thriller The Looking Glass War (1970), starring Anthony Hopkins, in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen on December 9th. December 16th brings Bonjour Tristesse (1958, with Deborah Kerr and David Niven) also in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Divorce American Style (1967, with Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds) and Adam Had Four Sons (1941, with Ingrid Bergman) will appear on January 6th. It's unclear whether the former will be the widescreen version or not.

Further to the R2 news in my last column about a Battle of Algiers (1965) release, Criterion apparently has plans for an R1 DVD in 2004 after the film receives a theatrical re-release. Accordingly to the Official Preston Sturges website, Unfaithfully Yours (1948, with Rex Harrison) may be a future Criterion release.

Fox reports that its initial Studio Classics offerings for 2004 will be My Darling Clementine (1946, with Henry Fonda) on January 6th, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959, directed by George Stevens) on February 4th, Peyton Place (1957, with Lana Turner) on March 2nd, and a rescheduled Grapes of Wrath (1940, with Henry Fonda) on April 6th. All will feature at least an audio commentary and Movietone newsreel footage. The television series Lost in Space: Season One (1965) will come to DVD in an eight-disc set on January 13th. On February 3rd, Fox will release a 35th Anniversary Edition of the Planet of the Apes (1968, with Charlton Heston). This time, the film will be anamorphically enhanced with copious extras necessitating a two-disc set.

Good Times will add eight more Roy Rogers westerns to its Happy Trails Theatre series: Arizona Kid (1939), Days of Jesse James (1939), In Old Cheyenne (1941), Sunset in El Dorado (1945), Trigger Jr. (1950), Under California Stars (1948), Young Bill Hickok (1940), and Young Buffalo Bill (1940). Release date is November 4th. Unfortunately, Roy is not faring as well on DVD quality-wise as Gene Autry (the Gene Autry Collection, released through Image).

On December 16th, Image will release a version of the James Cagney film Something to Sing About (1937, Grand National), a title frequently released by the public domain specialists. If Image's version proves to be a definite improvement over the others, it would be nice to see them also bring out a decent version of Cagney's other independent release of the time - Great Guy (1936, Grand National). Image also plans a release of the 14-chapter serial Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936, Mascot) on December 16th.

In January, MGM offers two television series box sets on the 13th - Green Acres: Season One (32 episodes) and The Best of Mr. Ed: Volume One (21 episodes). Then in February, delayed from this autumn, MGM will release special edition DVDs for five Ingmar Bergman films: Hour of the Wolf (1968), The Passion of Anna (1969), Persona (1966), The Serpent's Egg (1978), and Shame (1968).

Milestone Films (through Image) will release several more of the Photoplay restorations of key silent films on December 9th. The Blot (1921) stars Claire Windsor and Louis Calhern with direction by Lois Weber, while La Terre (1921) dramatizes the Emile Zola novel. Also planned from Milestone on the same date is Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer (1913-1917).

MPI has its third Rathbone/Green Sherlock Holmes Collection on tap for January 27th. The four titles included are: The Woman In Green (1945), Pursuit to Algiers (1945), Terror by Night (1946), and Dressed to Kill (1946). Commentaries for the two Fox films (Hound of the Baskervilles, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) are apparently being recorded later this autumn and we can likely expect the DVD releases in the mid-to-latter-part of the first quarter 2004.

Paramount news is all pretty tenuous this time out. The African Queen (1951) seems unlikely to appear before late 2004 at the earliest while any Jerry Lewis films are unlikely before 2005. The second season of I Love Lucy may appear in the first quarter of 2004 and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944, directed by Preston Sturges) will now likely be a late 2004 release.

The Preston Sturges website reports that it is discussing a program of releases with Universal Home Video that would 'double-feature' a well-known Sturges film with a work from earlier in his career. The films were all originally Paramount releases, but are now controlled by Universal. Universal has also announced an ambitious February release list. All the following will be in digipaks with outer boxes and will appear February 10th. First up is The Best of Abbott and Costello: Volume 1. This will include eight films: One Night in the Tropics, Buck Privates, In the Navy, Hold That Ghost, Keep 'Em Flying, Ride 'Em Cowboy, Pardon My Sarong, and Who Done It? (Reportedly further volumes will appear later in the year.) Then we'll get The Adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle: Volume 1, which will include four films: The Egg and I, The Further Adventures of Ma and Pa Kettle, Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, and Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm. (With these releases, can Francis the Talking Mule and its sequels be far behind?) Third up is Imitation of Life: Two Movie Collection which presents both the 1934 and 1959 versions of the film. The latter of course has previously been released and presumably will just be the same transfer. Finally, the Airport Terminal Pack combines all four of the 1970s airport films together: Airport (1970), Airport 1975 (1974), Airport '77 (1977), and The Concorde: Airport '79 (1979).

VCI may be releasing the Republic serial King of the Royal Mounted (1940) as early as this December.

Warner Bros has made available information on the content of its previously announced January classic releases. Days of Wine and Roses (1962) will include commentary by Blake Edwards, and interview with Jack Lemmon and two theatrical trailers. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will include both the 1932 Paramount uncut long version and the 1941 MGM remake, along with commentary by film historian Greg Mank, the Bugs Bunny animated short Hyde and Hare, and the theatrical trailer. The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) will feature an introduction by film historian Richard Jewell, The John Garfield Story documentary (narrated by daughter Julie Garfield), a "behind the scenes" image gallery, and two theatrical trailers. The Wind and the Lion (1975) will include commentary by writer/director John Milius, a "behind the scenes" featurette and the theatrical trailer. And finally, Where the Boys Are (1960) will include audio commentary, the Fort Lauderdale Scene of the World Premiere featurette, and the Where the Boys Were: A Retrospective featurette. Reportedly, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) is on Warners' schedule for 2004.

Well, once again that's it for now. See you all again soon.

Barrie Maxwell
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