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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #24 - November 2005
(Continued)


September Releases

Paramount offered us two waves of classic releases this month. Only one title seemed to appear with any sort of fanfare, The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. A long anticipated release, this was a 1944 film that was one of a mere handful whose rights remained with Paramount after their pre-1950 catalog was taken over by MCA (Universal). The DVD came out on September 6th, as did Casanova's Big Night and Red Garters. The second wave of classics appeared during the last week of the month and included: Anything Goes, Branded, Chuka, We're No Angels, and Hogan's Heroes: Season Two (of which, only Branded and Chuka hold significant interest). Classic fans also would find some interest in the appearance of a 2005 Mary Pickford documentary. Reviews of all these titles follow, except for Anything Goes, which I previously reviewed in my October 17th, 2005 column and Hogan's Heroes for which I have no review copy.


The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
(released on DVD by Paramount on September 6th, 2005)

The DVD release of this film has been rumoured for several years and has now finally arrived. It is the only one of Preston Sturges' films that were made at Paramount whose rights have remained with the studio. All the others are now controlled by Universal. Fortunately for Paramount, The Miracle at Morgan's Creek is one of Sturges' best. Trudy Kockenlocker is a patriotic young woman who feels it's her duty to entertain the troops at a dance before they head overseas. The next morning she wakes up to find a wedding ring on her finger and no recollection of any husband whatsoever. Not only that, she soon discovers that she's pregnant. Fearful that her child will be born with no father, she enlists her childhood friend Norval Jones in a scheme to legitimize her marriage and eventual newborn.

Anyone who has seen a Sturges comedy knows that this thumbnail plot sketch does little justice to the twists and turns of his films and the marvelous comedy portraits drawn by his stock comedy company. Both Betty Hutton (Trudy) and Eddie Bracken (Norval) were new to working with Sturges, but both fit right in with all the familiar faces such as William Demarest, Porter Hall, Torben Meyer, Jimmy Conlin, Al Bridge, and so on. Sturges would use Eddie Bracken again in his next film, Hail the Conquering Hero - another poke at small-town life. Aside from Miracle of Morgan's Creek's sustained level of comic mayhem, one of the most amazing things about the film was the fact that its script managed to get past the Hays Office virtually intact. As the renowned reviewer James Agee later commented, the Office must have been "raped in its sleep", otherwise the pregnancy and its possibly illegitimacy could never have been dealt with as overtly as it was in a film at that time.

Paramount's full frame DVD presentation is very rewarding. The image is generally quite sharp and offers a nicely detailed grayscale. Blacks are deep and contrast is very good. There's some mild grain and very little in the way of age-related defects. The mono sound is clear with only an occasional hint of background hiss intruding. English subtitles are provided. The supplements aren't quite up to the standard that Criterion set on its Sturges releases (The Lady Eve, Sullivan's Travels, Unfaithfully Yours), but are still interesting. We get two featurettes totaling about 20 minutes, on Sturges' career and Miracle in particular and on the film's censorship issues. Highly recommended.


Branded

Branded (1950)
(released on DVD by Paramount on September 27th, 2005)

We don't have nearly enough Alan Ladd on DVD, so this recent offering from Paramount is sure welcome. Ladd worked at Paramount for much of the early part of his career and most of those films are now controlled by Universal, but there are still six or seven possible titles from the late 1949 to1953 period (e.g. Appointment with Danger, Red Mountain, Captain Carey U.S.A.) that Paramount could issue. Branded is a western that offers further evidence that Ladd looked good in the saddle, something that would culminate in his wonderful work in Shane. Ladd is a gunfighter who is persuaded by a second-rate gunman (Robert Keith) to impersonate the long-lost son of a wealthy rancher (Charles Bickford). The idea is that he will inherit (either naturally or by a conveniently arranged killing of Bickford) the ranch, which can then be sold with the profits being shared by Ladd and Keith.

The tale holds interest throughout and is well acted by Ladd and the mainly veteran cast (among which Joseph Calleia shines as a Mexican bandit). It also looks very appealing in Technicolor with its use of Arizona and New Mexico locales.

Paramount's full frame presentation is attractive. The source material is apparently in fine shape. The colour is bright and looks accurate, and the overall image is sharp and well detailed with the exception of a few minor soft sequences. The mono sound (supplemented by English subtitles) is clear and free of age-related defects. There are no supplements. Recommended.


Casanova's Big Night

Casanova's Big Night (1954)
(released on DVD by Paramount on September 6th, 2005)

I generally find many of Bob Hope's film efforts rather underwhelming. Casanova's Big Night is a bit of an exception, however. He plays a lowly tailor, Pippo Popolino, in 18th century Italy who finds himself compelled to impersonate the famous lover Casanova (briefly portrayed in an unbilled appearance by Vincent Price). Pippo must try to obtain the crested petticoat of a Venetian noblewoman, but in so doing he finds himself a pawn in a nefarious scheme hatched by the Venetian Doge. The film's premise is somewhat reminiscent of Hope's early costume vehicle, Monsieur Beaucaire, and offers Hope bumbling his way through court intrigue and swordplay with equal success. Hope is in fine form here with a succession of great one-liners and a number of good sight gags.

Basil Rathbone returns to the screen for the first time since finishing the Sherlock Holmes series some eight years before and does a fine job as Casanova's unscrupulous valet. Joan Fontaine seems to be having a good time as Pippo's accomplice. The Venetian Doge is played by Arnold Moss, but more fascinating is the appearance of John Carradine and Raymond Burr as the Doge's top henchmen. Burr looks and sounds particularly out of place. Lon Chaney Jr. has a nice role as a convict who rents out a tunnel from his jail cell!

Paramount's full screen presentation appears correctly framed and offers for the most part a bright and sharp Technicolor image. Colour fidelity is quite good although there are a few soft-looking sections. The mono sound is in pretty good shape although there is some minor hiss in evidence at times. English subtitles are provided. There are no supplements. Recommended as a rental.


Red Garters

Red Garters (1954)
(released on DVD by Paramount on September 6th, 2005)

It's always a worry when the studio needs to warn the audience that what they're about to see is unlike anything they've seen before - in this case a western set in Limbo County, California. It turns out to be an attempt by Paramount to provide a musical spoof of the western genre using colourful, very stylized sets. Of course every western cliché in the book is played out to the hilt, but it's all so un-subtle that the film falls flat on its face. Nor does the musical angle help, for the songs are all completely forgettable. The result is a tough slog that makes 90 minutes seem twice as long and unfortunately takes no advantage of the obvious production value that the studio invested by virtue of the impressive costuming and set decoration (the latter nominated for an Academy Award). Lost in the whole thing are the likes of Rosemary Clooney, Jack Carson, and Gene Barry.

Paramount's full frame presentation of the Technicolor film looks very good. Colours are bright and clear, with the reds just jumping off the screen. The mono sound gives a bit of depth to the music and English subtitles are provided. There are no supplements.


We're No Angels

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

We're No Angels (1955)
(released on DVD by Paramount on September 27th, 2005)

We're not impressed. Humphrey Bogart and friends (Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray) are convicts just escaped from Devil's Island and trying to get on a ship that will take them to freedom. Hoping to steal enough to arrange for the passports and clothing they need to get away, the trio get mixed up with Felix Ducotel (Leo G. Carroll) who runs a store for his cousin André (Basil Rathbone), Unfortunately, Felix and his family have troubles of their own, for they're poor at business and face an audit of their store's books by André. Bogart et al. become interested in the family's fate and come to the rescue. This is a misfire of an attempt at light comedy. Bogart just looks uncomfortable for he was never suited to comedic roles, either straight or tongue-in-cheek. I guess one can give him points for making the effort, but it's not the Bogart we know and love. Aldo Ray probably fares best of the three convicts, but the film's real highlight is the work of Basil Rathbone. Too bad there isn't much more of him in it. Michael Curtiz was also a curious choice to direct the material and he seems unable to give the story any pep or to draw the necessary performances from most of the cast.

Paramount's 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the VistaVision picture is a winner, however. The image is sharp; the colour is vibrant; and the source material is very clean. The mono sound is in good shape with dialogue very clear. A French mono track and English sub-titles are provided. There are no supplements. For Bogart completists only.


Chuka

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Chuka (1967)
(released on DVD by Paramount on September 27th, 2005)

This looks at first glance like standard western fare as a martinet-like cavalry colonel (John Mills) decides to make a stand at the fort he commands in the face of a superior force of Indians angered by the lack of food and weapons whose provision they were promised. Into the midst of the standoff comes a lone gunman named Chuka (Rod Taylor) who makes it his business to try to get the colonel to back down and abandon the fort. Chuka was made at the time that it was fashionable for Europeans and other non-American actors to star in American-made westerns, as an alternative to the Italian-made spaghetti westerns then popular. Shalako (Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot) and the A Man Called Horse films (Richard Harris) are other examples. In Chuka, we have an Australian (Taylor) and Englishman (Mills) playing the main parts and an Italian actress (Luciana Paluzzi) in support. Good old American colour is provided by the ever reliable Ernest Borgnine and James Whitmore (although this is the second DVD of recent times in which Whitmore has portrayed a scout rather unconvincingly - the other was in Sony's release of The Last Frontier).

As a film, Chuka is quite successful. It's not packed with action, but it is a thoughtful presentation on the difficulties of command particularly when there many men with conflicting allegiances and interests involved. The principal actors are uniformly good, particularly the often under-rated Rod Taylor. The veteran director Gordon Douglas's work is brisk and generally non-intrusive although he does allow himself the luxury of a few offbeat camera angles.

Paramount's 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is the usual reliable effort. They again have quite decent source material to work with and the result is a generally sharp image with good colour fidelity, allowing for the less-vibrant colours that tend to dominate the film. The mono sound is clear of background hiss and is supplemented by English sub-titles. There is no bonus material. Recommended.


Mary Pickford Mary Pickford (2005)
(released on DVD by Paramount on September 27th, 2005)

I think it's fair to say that the name Mary Pickford is recognizable to anyone, young or old, who has even a passing interest in film. Born in Toronto, but eventually to become America's Sweetheart, she was silent film's first movie star and one of its first moguls. With the coming of sound, however, and despite winning the second Best Actress Academy Award, her star began to wane and she retreated into her home in the Hollywood Hills where she eventually became a virtual recluse until her death at age 87 in 1979.

As part of its American Experience series, early in 2005 PBS aired a fine profile of Mary Pickford's life and career written and directed by Sue Williams and narrated by Laura Linney. That program has now been released on DVD by Paramount.

It's a typically fine if not particularly earth-shattering presentation in the American Experience series - well-researched and utilizing a great selection of film clips (both from her daily life as well as her films), still photographs, and interviews with several film historians as well as biographers Scott Eyman and Eileen Whitfield. Linney's narration is low key, but generally effective. The profile is respectful and realistic, detailing both the ups and downs of Pickford's life, although it never really tells us anything we didn't already know. As one might expect, the majority of the time is spent on her years making films. The last 45 years of her life receives short shrift and remains as big a mystery to the viewer as ever.

Paramount's full screen presentation is correctly framed and is typical of its PBS releases. The image is generally sharp and accurate with good colour reproduction. Image quality overall reflects the source material with new or more recent footage looking best while historic material is generally in rougher shape (although some footage of Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks on tour or holiday is in remarkably good condition). The stereo sound is average. There is no subtitling provided. The only supplement is a comprehensive Mary Pickford filmography. Recommended as a rental.


October Releases

This month's releases featured another couple of well-publicized John Wayne titles - Hondo and McLintock! These were then followed by another late-month stealth release, this time of Darling Lili, Detective Story, Jerry Lewis: The Legendary Jerry Collection, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. The two Kirk Douglas movies (Detective Story and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) are the pick of this latter lot. Reviews of all follow.


The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)
(released on DVD by Paramount on October 25th, 2005)

Although originally released by Paramount, this film was a Hal Wallis Production that has been allowed to fall into the public domain. An earlier DVD release by Image was pretty decent, but Paramount has done right by classic film fans by going back to the best source material for this superior release. The film revolves around a love triangle involving Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, and Van Heflin who play the grown up versions of three childhood friends. When Sam Masterson (Heflin) returns by chance to the town where they all grew up, he discovers that Martha Ivers (Stanwyck) is now the town power and her weak husband Walter O'Neil (Douglas) is running for office. Stanwyck and Douglas share a dark secret from the past and they become convinced that Heflin is back to blackmail them over it. That's not the case, but their efforts to deal with Heflin point to fatal results.

This was Kirk Douglas's first film and his effectively sympathetic portrayal immediately marked him as an actor to watch. Stanwyck and Heflin are both marvelous and fine support is provided by the reliable Lizabeth Scott as well as Roman Bohnen in a small but key role. The film is classic film noir in both its dark look and story, and its evocation of a shadowy past event that threatens to destroy the tale's main characters.

Paramount's full frame presentation offers a nice film-like appearance with a pleasing amount of grain in evidence. Blacks are deep and the image is quite sharp. Contrast is slightly variable, however, and there are various speckles and scratches present. The mono sound is in good shape with but minimal hiss audible. English subtitles are provided, but there are no supplements. Nevertheless this is a superior film with all the atmosphere and production value of the 1940s you could ask for, and here given by far its best presentation on disc. Recommended.


Detective Story

Detective Story (1951)
(released on DVD by Paramount on October 25th, 2005)

This is director William Wyler's version of the play of the same title by Sidney Kingsley. With the exception of one short sequence, the action takes place in a New York police precinct building and follows a number of different plot strands concerning crimes and their victims, all occurring during one evening. Despite the film's almost single set nature, Wyler manages to make the proceedings so interesting that we virtually forget the film's stage origins. Among an excellent ensemble cast, Kirk Douglas stands out as a detective dedicated to his work but unyielding in his approach to dealing with crime no matter how large or small. Unfortunately his wife's past plays a critical role in one of his current cases, with disastrous results.

Joseph Wiseman (as a four-time loser) and Lee Grant (as a petty shoplifter) make memorable screen debuts. William Bendix also offers one of his better efforts as a sympathetic cop. In 1951, this sort of story was a rather new idea and although we've seen the likes of it frequently since, on both television and the big screen, Detective Story still has power.

Paramount's full frame presentation is excellent. It's virtually free of source material defects and offers a luminous black and white transfer with excellent shadow detail. The mono sound is in very good shape and is supplemented by English subtitles. There is also a French mono track. There is no bonus material. Recommended.


Hondo

Hondo (1953)
(released on DVD by Paramount on October 11th, 2005)

John Wayne was coming off of his second year in a row as Hollywood's top box-office star when he traveled to Mexico to make Hondo, an archetypal cowboys and Indians tale based on a story by Louis L'Amour. The film was made in 3-D as Batjac's (John Wayne and Robert Fellow's production company) contribution to the briefly popular gimmick. Wayne portrays the title character of Hondo Lane, a cavalry dispatch rider in the American southwest where he has to ride a fine line between marauding Apaches (with whom he builds an uneasy peace) and the increasing attraction between himself and a young woman whose brutish husband he has killed.

The film was one of Wayne's most successful films of the time and provided him with one of the roles for which he would always be remembered. It also introduced Geraldine Page (then a fine Broadway star) to the screen and she delivered a very nice, unmannered portrait of a frontier ranch woman.

Several of what would become the John Wayne stock company were also around to provide comfortable support to the Duke - Ward Bond, James Arness, Michael Pate, Leo Gordon, and Paul Fix. Under the direction of John Farrow, the film has plenty of well-staged action and takes good advantage of its location shooting, with Farrow wrapping the whole thing up in a brisk 83 minutes.

Paramount's DVD presentation is a Special Collector's Edition that continues in the vein of the company's recent offerings of the other Batjac films. The full frame transfer is more than satisfactory, appearing crisp and colourful most of the time, with only a few soft-looking sequences intruding. There is some modest grain in evidence, and source material defects are not intrusive. Both the original mono sound and a new Dolby Digital 5.1 track are provided. The latter is a nice improvement on the mono in terms of richness although as usually tends to be the case, there is little directionality evident. English subtitles are also provided. The package of supplements is very comprehensive. After providing an introduction to the film, Leonard Maltin joins in with western historian Frank Thompson and actor Lee Aaker (he plays Page's young son in the film) for an informative audio commentary. There is also a making-of documentary (almost 20 minutes), modest profiles on Ward Bond and Wayne's favorite screenwriter James Edward Grant, an interview with Michael Wayne, an historical essay on the Apache, a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer. Recommended.


McLintock!

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

McLintock! (1963)
(released on DVD by Paramount on October 11th, 2005)

Remembering the success of the somewhat tongue-in-cheek antics of 1960's North to Alaska, John Wayne made a western in a similar vein three years later for his own production company, Batjac. The title was McLintock!, in which Wayne staged a running feud, as rancher G.W. (George Washington) McLintock, with his estranged wife Katherine (Maureen O'Hara). The two are reunited in order to welcome their daughter home from college, although there are supposedly no plans for any permanent reconciliation between them. Viewers of course know better and are treated to two very enjoyable hours as the inevitable gradually draws closer. Along the way, we're treated to a monumental mudhole brawl that has become the film's signature piece. The whole thing meanders along rather lazily, but it's all presented with such good humour and peopled with such a familiar, relaxed cast that it would be churlish to find any objection to the results. Wayne and O'Hara as usual are superb together, while Stephanie Powers, Yvonne De Carlo, Chill Wills, and Edgar Buchanan head the supporting cast. The resulting film provides first-rate entertainment and is a better choice than North to Alaska for this type of Wayne effort.

Paramount's DVD presentation is dubbed an Authentic Collector's Edition (although I'm not quite clear how that differs from a Special Collectors Edition which is how the studio has advertised its other entries in its Batjac release program). The transfer is derived from original film elements that appear to be in excellent shape for the resulting 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is superb. Blacks are deep and glossy; whites are very clean; and image detail is excellent. The colour fidelity is equally impressive. As with Hondo, both the original mono sound and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track are provided. The latter is similarly an improvement in richness but lacks any significant surround activity. English subtitles are provided also. Leonard Maltin provides a brief introduction to the film and then participates in a very thorough audio commentary with western historian Frank Thompson. Their thoughts and facts are supplemented with comments from Maureen O'Hara, Stefanie Powers, Michael Pate, Michael Wayne, and Andrew McLaglen. A two-part documentary featuring comments from Maureen O'Hara and Stephanie Powers as well as two stuntmen highlights the rest of the supplements. There is also a profile on Michael Wayne, short featurettes on how to stage a fight for the camera and on the corset, a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer. This movie and supplement package is the best of Paramount's Batjac releases to date and is highly recommended.


Jerry Lewis: The Legendary Jerry Collection

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs


Jerry Lewis: The Legendary Jerry Collection (1953-1965)
(released on DVD by Paramount on October 25th, 2005)

I'm not going to say too much about this collection. Almost a year after Paramount released a whole whack of Jerry Lewis titles, the studio has now packaged them together in one set. The films are: The Nutty Professor, The Ladies' Man, The Delicate Delinquent, Cinderfella, The Bell Boy, The Errand Boy, The Patsy, The Disorderly Orderly, The Family Jewels, and The Stooge, and the transfers and supplements remain the same as presented on the original releases.

Those were for the most part very nice presentations and generally met the hopes of Lewis's fans. I'm not one of them, for I find his so-called comedy abysmally unfunny. But for those of you who are fans and did not avail yourselves of the titles when they first appeared, here's an attractive way to get them all now.


Darling Lili

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Darling Lili (1970)
(released on DVD by Paramount on October 25th, 2005)

In 1970, when films such as Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and M*A*S*H were in favour, they didn't make films like Darling Lili much anymore - which is probably why it found little critical or popular favour. Originally released at 136 minutes and later shortened by director Blake Edwards to 114 minutes, it's a glossy mix of intrigue, romance, and music set in the First World War. Julie Andrews plays music-hall performer Lili Smith who is in actual fact a German spy. She is assigned to seduce airplane squadron commander Major Larrabee (Rock Hudson) in order to find out about any secret allied plans he may be privy to. She soon becomes aware of Operation Crepes Suzettes, but is it an actual secret Allied plan or just a codeword for another Larrabee sweetheart?

This is a very pleasant piece of entertainment, full of production value surrounding appealing work by Julie Andrews. She has several opportunities to sing, including the delightful "Whistling in the Dark". In general, the musical components of the film are its highlight, not surprising given a pedigree of Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini for the music and Hermes Pan for the staging.

The dramatic parts of the film involving the Andrews and Hudson characters are somewhat less successful, but that's not Andrews' fault. She tries very hard, but unfortunately she's saddled with a Rock Hudson performance that dampens the film's vitality every time he comes on screen. The film has several aerial sequences that are well filmed. The footage was apparently shot in Ireland with the assistance of the Irish Air Force.

Paramount presents the shortened director's cut on DVD. It includes an overture and exit music. Generally, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks excellent, with a crisp image and nicely saturated colour. There are a few minor blemishes and some instances of heightened grain. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix sounds great, offering a lush, vibrant presence with modest directionality. A 2.0 surround mix and English subtitles are also provided. Supplements include 19 additional scenes comprising some 53 minutes of material and the original theatrical trailer. The additional scenes can be viewed all together or individually, but there's no simple way of knowing which of them may have been in the 136-minute version or in possibly an even longer and earlier cut. I've never seen the 136-minute theatrical version, so can't comment on how it may have compared to this shorter director's cut. The latter is what's currently available to us and is recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


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