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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #11 - October 2004 (continued)


The Frank Sinatra Show: Welcome Home Elvis (1960)
(released on DVD by Music Video Distributors on February 10th, 2004)

In 1957, the ABC television network commenced a series of variety show specials starring Frank Sinatra. The last of these was taped in Miami on May 12th, 1960 and had as its featured guest, Elvis Presley, who had just completed his military service.

The Frank Sinatra Show: Welcome Home Elvis

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I haven't seen any of the other shows in this series and I don't believe they're available on DVD, but this one, doubtless by virtue of the presence of Elvis, is. Of the one hour running time, Elvis is onstage for about ten minutes. He performs two songs himself ("Fame and Fortune", "Stuck on You") and one in a duet with Sinatra (Frank sings "Love Me Tender" while Elvis sings "Witchcraft"). The rest of the show features Frank, with appearances by Nancy Sinatra and Rat Packers Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford.

Although this show isn't vintage Sinatra or Presley, it is quite good with consistently entertaining work by the other featured performers. The main number after the opening, "Frank's Time Machine", is rather weak, but things pick up from there. Frank sings "It's Very Nice", "Witchcraft", "Gone with the Wind", and "Love Makes You Feel So Young" (with Nancy Sinatra). Sammy Davis Jr. is particularly versatile offering singing, dancing, and impersonations. He does a fun "Shall We Dance" number with Peter Lawford. Those tuning in mainly to see Elvis will likely be disappointed by having to wait until the second half of the show, but that's what DVD scene selections are for.

Music Video Distributors' DVD release is apparently mastered from the show's original kinescope and the result is mediocre at best. The full frame image is rather washed out with poor contrast and blooming whites, and is just barely watchable. Numerous speckles, scratches, and dirt are present. The mono sound is rather tinny with hiss in evidence. There are no sub-titles. As a supplement, there is an uninspiring 47-minute documentary of Elvis's life that has no credits or title whatsoever and opens with a few seconds apparently missing. Image quality is about the same as the television show. Biographic information and disc- and filmographies are provided for the main performers. I suppose Frank or Elvis completists will want to have this, but the image quality rates no recommendation for others.


Judgment at Nuremberg: Special Edition (1961)
(released on DVD by MGM on September 7th, 2004)

Abby Mann's fine story of the Nuremberg trials, "Judgment at Nuremberg", was first broadcast in an episode of television's Playhouse 90 with Claude Rains, Melvyn Douglas, Paul Lukas, and Maximilian Schell playing the key roles. Mann, however, hoped to find a larger audience for the material by making a feature film from it. He was able to interest Spencer Tracy in such a project and Stanley Kramer's involvement as producer and director soon followed. Kramer opened up the story and expanded it into a three-hour movie with location work in Berlin and Nuremberg. He had hoped to make the entire film on location, but access to the Nuremberg court room used at the original trial was not possible, so a replica was constructed on a Hollywood sound stage. From the Playhouse 90 version, only Maximilian Schell among the main players would repeat his role - that of the defence attorney.

Mann's story focuses on one of the lesser-known Nuremberg trials, that of German judges who went along with the Nazi regime and condemned defendants to sterilization or death even when they knew the verdicts were wrong. When the original trial ended in 1949, the international situation was such that Germany was by then considered an ally in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and prosecution of Germans for past war crimes no matter how heinous was no longer considered judicious or even relevant by some people. Mann's screenplay refocused attention on the horror of the Holocaust and emphasized the importance of even one life illegally and immorally taken, never mind millions.

Judgment at Nuremberg

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The film is a mesmerizing chronicle dramatizing events that too many have forgotten. It is one of the few serious films that succeeds while utilizing an all-star cast. Spencer Tracy is fine choice as the semi-retired jurist who agrees to head the tribunal while Burt Lancaster as Ernst Janning, the main judge of the four being tried, provides a forceful portrait of a man who comes to realize that there was no justification for his actions and no proper verdict other than guilty as a consequence. Both Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift contribute memorable vignettes as witnesses who previously suffered in Janning's courtroom. Acting honours, however, go to Maximilian Schell who creates in the German defence attorney the image of a man who could too easily go down the same road in the name of country that led to the downfall of those he is defending. Schell would win a deserving Best Actor Academy Award for his efforts. It along with one to Abby Mann for his screenplay were the only wins out of the 11 nominations that the film received. Don't be put off by the film's 186-minute running time (including overture and exit music), the experience is so intense and engrossing that the time just flies by.

MGM has issued Judgment at Nuremberg on DVD in a single-disc version that it has labeled a Special Edition. The film is presented in a 1.66:1 widescreen version that is not anamorphically enhanced, but nevertheless looks very good indeed. The transfer provides a sharp image with a finely rendered gray scale that exhibits excellent shadow detail. There are no edge effects and only some occasional grain in evidence. Source material defects are minimum. Both the original mono and a new 5.1 surround track are provided. The latter demonstrates some marked front separation in dialogue, but almost to the point of distraction with voices suddenly coming from well off the screen at times. For this type of dialogue driven material, you're just as far ahead with the original mono. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The supplementary material is fine, though a little thin for a true Special Edition. This film begs for a two-disc edition with an audio commentary and the inclusion of the original Playhouse 90 version, if available. Instead, we get a 20-minute chat by Abby Mann and Maximilian Schell providing some reminiscences about the film, but too much mutual congratulation; a 15-minute Stanley Kramer profile featuring his wife Karen Sharpe Kramer; and a 7-minute collage of scenes with readings and comments by Abby Mann. There is also an appreciable photo gallery divided into five themes and the original theatrical trailer. Recommended.


The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)
(released on DVD by Paramount on July 13th, 2004)

After the very active decade of the 1950s during which he appeared in 24 films and won the Academy Award as Best Actor in Stalag 17 as well as appearing in such successes as Sunset Boulevard, The Country Girl, and The Bridge on the River Kwai, William Holden found the 1960s to be much less rewarding. Not only would there be fewer film appearances in total (only 11), but there would be substantially fewer of lasting quality. The Wild Bunch (1969) was probably the high point. The only other film to rise above the mediocre was 1962's The Counterfeit Traitor - an espionage film based on a true story in which Holden played American-born Swedish citizen Eric Erickson who deals internationally in oil, including with Germany during the Second World War. He is blackmailed by Allied intelligence into spying for the Allies. A reluctant spy, Erickson gradually distances himself from his friends and builds up German confidence in him. With the aid of a German woman also working for the Allies (played by Lilli Palmer), Erickson's work yields substantial intelligence for the Allies. Then one of his German contacts dies, setting in motion a chain of events that threatens to destroy the whole network of contacts that Erickson has developed.

The Counterfeit Traitor

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There's certainly nothing particularly new in The Counterfeit Traitor, but the film is an intelligent and very well-made example of the World War II spy genre. Written and directed by George Seaton, it tells an engrossing tale from the viewpoint of a citizen of a neutral country and continually engages one's interest with excellent use of location work across Europe (Stockholm, Hamburg, Copenhagen, West Berlin) and the employment of local actors throughout. The work of the latter and the principal players is excellent. Holden displays a fair degree of interest in the material and plays Erickson with conviction, conveying Erickson's changing feelings about his task with great skill. Lilli Palmer is very effective as the German co-conspirator and the romance that develops between her character and Erickson is thoroughly believable. Hugh Griffith, in the tradition of quirky British spy masters, contributes a solid performance as the British intelligence officer who oversees the whole operation. The film does run a little long at 140 minutes, but that's a minor quibble for a generally superior effort of its kind.

Paramount provides an above-average overall 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the film. There is some variation in the image sharpness and occasional speckling is present, but colour fidelity is quite good and edge effects are not an issue. The film's original mono sound is in good shape, but Paramount has also provided a new Dolby Digital 5.1 track. It works quite well with some subtle use of the surrounds for ambient effects and for Alfred Newman's pleasing score. English sub-titles are included. There are no supplements, but the disc is well priced. Recommended.


The Boston Strangler (1968)
(released on DVD by Fox on September 7th, 2004)

Even in the loosening film censorship climate of the late 1960s, Gerold Frank's book documenting the events surrounding the Boston Strangler case was considered difficult material to bring to the screen. This was partially due to the graphic nature of the killings but also the difficulty in conveying the multiple personality disorder that characterized the killer. Fox, under the leadership of Richard Zanuck, was convinced to produce a filmization, however, and with Richard Fleischer directing and making a surprising casting choice, the film became one of the surprise successes of 1968. The resulting film was part police procedural as it documented the killings and the police efforts to determine who the Boston Strangler is and part psychological battle of wits as the chief investigating detective tries to delve into the killer's mind.

The film has several things going for it. One is the split and multiple screen approach used by Richard Fleischer. Inspired by this innovative technique then being used at Montreal's Expo '67, Fleischer devised complex visual patterns using sometimes as many as 7 or 8 distinct images spread like a mosaic in widescreen Panavision to show multiple events occurring concurrently as well as heighten tension and convey a sense of the killer's fractured mind. One can well imagine how badly this film suffered when it was released to television in the 1970s and had its complex compositions fatally compromised by pan and scan for network broadcast.

The Boston Strangler

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The film's other major plus was its surprise casting of Tony Curtis in the title role. Curtis was known for light romantic comedies and it was only after some subterfuge by the director that his casting was approved. Curtis saw the role as a potential career turning point and threw himself into it. When he first appears over half way into the film, he's almost unrecognizable as the Strangler with his nose altered and added weight on his face and body. But Curtis's efforts are more than just physical. He really submerges himself in the role and his scenes in the mental hospital as he slowly begins to reveal the dual nature of his character are riveting and true-to-life. Unfortunately for Curtis, although critics and the public applauded his efforts, the Academy didn't see fit to award even a nomination to his work and so the role became merely a blip on Curtis's filmography. In addition to Curtis, the film also has solid work from Henry Fonda as the law school professor/chief detective and the likes of George Kennedy and Murray Hamilton as his assistants. Sally Kellerman has an early role as a Strangler victim who manages to survive.

Fox provides a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks quite remarkable. Aside from a few minor speckles, it's crisp and clear with fine shadow detail and nary a trace of edge effects. Some difficult colour juxtapositions and dark lighting sequences are well-handled. The stereo sound is a plus with some modest directionality and decent presence. Mono tracks in English, French, and Spanish as well as English and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Fox also provides some nice supplements leading off with an AMC Backstory on the making of the film that covers the basics in a fairly thorough and entertaining fashion. Some newsreel footage concerning the actual murders (only partial audio is available) is included, providing a nice contrasting touch. The theatrical teaser and trailer are also provided. Recommended.


Goodbye, Columbus (1969)
(released on DVD by Paramount on June 8th, 2004)

Some films that evoke a particular era in the past manage to stand the test of time due to superior acting and writing; others lacking such qualities lose their original luster particularly when subsequent films cover the same ground just as, if not more, effectively. Goodbye, Columbus, the film of Philip Roth's best-selling novel, is an example of the latter and seems quite dated now.

Goodbye, Columbus

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Very much an artifact of its time - the late 60s, its portrait of the relationship between Neil, a poor Bronx librarian (Richard Benjamin), Brenda, the pampered daughter of a rich, Jewish Westchester family (Ali MacGraw), and the difficulties that their romance must overcome in the face of family opposition elicit little other than an occasional chuckle now. Jewish family members and situations (such as the wedding presented here) have been so thoroughly covered in numerous Woody Allen films, for example, that Jack Klugman and Nan Martin, as MacGraw's parents, seem like absolute paragons in comparison.

The film was Ali MacGraw's debut on screen, and she's not really bad at all. Unfortunately, her desultory work on subsequent films has virtually doomed her career since, and that perception now reaches back to affect one's enjoyment of her earliest work. Richard Benjamin, also in his feature film debut, is much better as Neil and his work would lead to steady work in the 1970s and subsequently a career as a director (a high point was 1982's My Favorite Year). Arnold Schulman's screenplay received an Academy Award nomination and seemed somewhat daring at the time, but familiarity has dulled its effectiveness.

There's nothing to complain about in the film's look on DVD, however. The 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation is very nice indeed with a crisp, detailed image and accurate-looking colours. There are no edge effects. Less successful is the mono audio, which does little to enhance the songs performed by The Association for the film. Dialogue sounds satisfactory, if a bit thin at times. The disc includes a French mono track and English sub-titles. There are no supplements.


That's Entertainment! The Complete Collection (1974, 1976, 1994)
(released on DVD by Warner Brothers on October 12th, 2004)

I imagine that virtually everyone with an interest in classic films knows about these three compilations of clips from the great MGM musicals of the Hollywood Golden Era. Just in case you've been stranded on a desert island for the last 30 years, I'll quickly summarize what they are. That's Entertainment! was conceived as a TV special to commemorate the 50th anniversary of MGM in 1974, but an initial viewing of the material that was being compiled led to an upgrade of the project to feature film status. The film was structured as a number of segments hosted by the actual stars of the era, such as Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney, Donald O'Connor, and so on. Each segment would highlight a certain musical performer, historical era, style of musical, or composer. The resulting film was embraced by the film-going public and a follow-up was inevitable. This came in 1976 in the form of That's Entertainment, Part 2. The structuring of clips was similar to the previous release, but this time the hosting was done exclusively by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. For the 70th anniversary of MGM in 1994, a third installment was prepared - That's Entertainment! III. This time there was a return to having a selection of original stars hosting the various segments - the likes of Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Esther Williams, June Allyson, Debbie Reynolds, Lena Horne, and Howard Keel. And in a departure from the first two films, included was significant footage that had been shot when the original musicals were made but not used for various reasons.

That's Entertainment! The Complete Collection

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Anyone at all familiar with MGM musicals knows what to expect from these compilations - fabulous skill and artistry, beautiful Technicolor in many cases, memorable music, and just great overall entertainment value as the films' titles suggest. Many will have seen the complete original films from which the clips are taken, but for others the compilations serve to whet the appetite for those originals. Many are already available on DVD from Warner Bros. with at least eight more scheduled for 2005 (The Band Wagon, Easter Parade, Love Me or Leave Me, and Broadway Melody of 1929 among them). While it's fortunate that we have these some six-hours worth of compilations and the original films available to us, it's also somewhat sad to see the evidence of what's no longer possible. The studio system during the Golden Era offered a situation that brought the finest musical talents of the time together and at least in the case of MGM appeared to give them virtually unlimited freedom and resources to perform to the best of their abilities. As Frank Sinatra says during his segment of That's Entertainment!, "You can stand around and wait, but you'll never see the likes of this again."

In order to present these films in the best light, Warner Bros. has gone to extraordinary lengths to make its box set a package worth having. Each film is given a separate two-sided disc. One side has an anamorphic widescreen version as originally shown theatrically (here all 1.37:1 material is windowboxed) while the other side contains a standard version with the framing material and 1.37:1 clips presented full frame and widescreen clips presented in letterbox format. The widescreen version is the preferred option as one might expect, although those with standard aspect ratio TVs will appreciate the option of seeing the 1.37:1 material full frame as offered in the standard version. Warners' widescreen transfers offer noticeable improvement over the previous laserdisc versions with a sharp image and vibrant, bright colour. Some of the clips appear to have benefited from the recent DVD restorations of their original titles. The soundtracks have been remastered to Dolby Digital 5.1 and offer a rich musical experience with intermittent but subtly effective use of the surrounds. Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies gives an introduction to each film and each is accompanied by the original theatrical trailer as well as being supplemented by sub-titling in English, French, and Spanish.

The fourth disc of the box set contains over two and a half hours of supplementary material. Those who have seen snippets of the short subject about the dinner that MGM hosted for its stars, executives and exhibitors for its 25th anniversary in 1949 will be pleased to find the complete record of that event on the disc. Now you've got much more time to try and identify all the stars present. Supplements specifically related to That's Entertainment! include the complete post-premiere gala hosted by George Hamilton (That's Entertainment: 50 Years of MGM) and a pre-production teaser short (Just One More Time). That's Entertainment, Part 2 is represented by MGM's international press promotion for its 1975 season (The Lion Roars Again) and excerpts from the February 20th, 1976 edition of The Mike Douglas Show celebrating Part 2's release. That's Entertainment! III is represented by its thorough making-of documentary (That's Entertainment! III: Behind the Screen). Flipping over the disc we find a new documentary (The Masters Behind the Musicals) focusing on the creative talent behind the MGM musicals - the producers, musical and vocal arrangers, directors, and choreographers. Last, but finally far from least, is a collection of 16 musical out-takes featuring the likes of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy Durante, Esther Williams, Jane Powell, and Lena Horne.

It's hard to imagine anyone being disappointed by the wealth of riches in this set. Whether you've seen all the films a dozen times or have them all on laserdisc, this DVD set is a must-have. Very highly recommended.


The Spencer Tracy Legacy (1986)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on October 12th, 2004 as part of Tracy & Hepburn: The Signature Collection)

It's always nice to come across an actor's biography on film that's more than a puff piece. Almost 20 years old now, The Spencer Tracy Legacy, originally made for television, is an excellent tribute to Tracy by Katharine Hepburn, his long-time companion.

Tracy & Hepburn: The Signature Collection

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She provides framing comments to a generous sampling of juicy clips of Tracy's work covering his early days at Fox, the peak years at MGM, and the later independent productions, many by Stanley Kramer. Interspersed are quite revealing comments by numerous co-workers including actors Joan Bennett, Angela Lansbury, Lee Marvin, Sidney Poitier, Burt Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Wagner, Richard Widmark, and Joanne Woodward as well as directors Garson Kanin, Stanley Kramer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and John Sturges. The tribute runs 86 minutes and concludes with a moving letter to Tracy written and read by Katharine Hepburn. If you're not familiar with Spencer Tracy's work, particularly that from before 1960, this is an excellent introduction to it.

The biography was previously available on an MGM/UA laserdisc combined with Fury. This time it's been issued by Warner Bros. but again only in conjunction with other titles - Tracy & Hepburn: The Signature Collection, wherein it rates a separate disc along with copies of Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib, and Pat and Mike. The latter three are the same fairly good versions that have been around for quite a while now. The Spencer Tracy Legacy is correctly presented full frame and looks quite acceptable. The many clips are variable in quality as one might expect, but the framing material is generally crisp with accurate if slightly soft-looking colour. The mono sound is in good shape. There are no supplements. Recommended if you don't already have the other Tracy/Hepburn titles in the box set.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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