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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #41 and New Releases

With continuing recent house-moving issues and related computer woes delaying my devoting more attention to my reviewing and writing tasks (it's as frustrating for me to mention it as it probably is for you to hear it again), I've decided to do things a little differently in this column in a continuing effort to get caught up somewhat. I'm providing a summary of the recent classic releases in the form of a table that provides some content details, quality considerations, and recommendations. It's not the sort of longer review format I usually offer, but I think you'll find it provides effective coverage of the many recent classic releases. I welcome any comments you may have on this sort of approach, one that could also be used in the future as a supplement to or in place of longer reviews.

The column also includes the usual news of forthcoming classic releases. Warner Bros. and Fox have stepped things up for the February/March period, but virtually everyone else is lagging compared to their own recent classic track records.


Reviews of Recent Classic Releases

Of the nineteen releases covered below (The Glass Mountain and A Christmas Carol: Ultimate Collector's Edition from VCI; The Stranger, The Graduate: 40th Anniversary Edition, and The Return of Dracula/The Vampire from MGM; 20 Million Miles from Earth: 50th Anniversary Edition and Golden Boy from Sony; Blueprint for Murder/Man in the Attic, The Girl Next Door, and With a Song in My Heart from Fox; Anne of the Thousand Days/Mary Queen of Scots and The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid from Universal; Funny Face: 50th Anniversary Edition and Perry Mason: Season Two, Volume Two from Paramount; Treasures from American Film Archives III from Image; The Jazz Singer: 80th Anniversary Edition, Burt Lancaster: The Signature Collection, and Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection from Warner Bros.; and Body and Soul from Questar, it's hard to identify any that aren't worthy of your attention. In that sense, I can recommend all of them, but a few offer particular value of your buying dollar. Warner Bros.' The Jazz Singer is the single most worthy release, but Treasures from American Film Archives III isn't far behind. Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, Golden Boy, With a Song in My Heart, and the new release of A Christmas Carol are all also highly recommended.

Title, Star, Company & Release Date Cover Art Key Extras
Glass Mountain, The
(Dulcie Gray)
VCI - June 26
Glass Mountain, The Short animated 1939 featurette of Debussy's "Claire de Lune"; theatrical trailer
Interesting and lesser-known 1949 British film with post-war and opera background, given new life by VCI. Transfer is quite workable and mono sound okay with but minor hiss.

Stranger, The
(Orson Welles)
MGM - July 10
Stranger, The Theatrical trailer.
Surprising to see MGM rescue this title from public domain hell, but a welcome event as the film is an above average thriller. Edward G. Robinson steals the show from Welles and Loretta Young. With modest grain evident, this is the best version of the film available on DVD despite a few speckles and other debris. Roan Group did have a pretty decent version previously available. The mono sound is clear.

20 Million Miles to Earth: 50th Anniversary Edition
(William Hopper)
Sony - July 31
20 Million Miles to Earth: 50th Anniversary Edition Audio commentary with Harryhausen and visual effects artists Dennis Muren, Phil Tippett, and Arnold Kunert; making-of featurette with Harryhausen ; interview with Joan Taylor, co-star of the film; featurette on music director Mischa Bakaleinikoff.
This new two-disc version is the one to have of this, one of Ray Harryhausen's best films. His characteristic stop-motion work with the Venusian creature gives it real character. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is very good indeed, crisp and clear and pleasingly clean for the 50-year old film. The mono sound is quite good. For those somehow interested, a Legend Films colourization version is also offered and is apparently based on the colour scheme originally envisaged by Harryhausen.

Blueprint for Murder/Man in the Attic
(Joseph Cotten/Jack Palance)
Fox - Sept. 11
Blueprint for Murder/Man in the Attic Theatrical trailers for both
A neat mystery programmer packaged with a middling version of Jack the Ripper, the latter featuring a rather ripe Jack Palance performance. Part of the Midnite Movies series, but Fox's packaging uses two discs instead of the single two-sided discs sported by MGM entries. Both films are transferred full frame as originally shot and look very presentable with nice image detail, particularly Blueprint for Murder; sound is clear on both.

Graduate, The: 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition
(Dustin Hoffman)
MGM - Sept. 11
Graduate, The: 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition Two strong audio commentaries - one by actors Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, the other by directors Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh; featurette of directors and academics discussing the film's influence; soundtrack CD
There's not much new that needs to be said about the film itself. It remains a strong piece of entertainment despite its overexposure by virtue of its many iconic images evoking the 1960s. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is the key improvement - the sharp, clear image now allowing the film to shine properly. The mono sound is very clear and quite dynamic and makes the inclusion of DD and DTS 5.1 tracks unnecessary.

Return of Dracula, The/The Vampire
(Francis Lederer/John Beal)
MGM - Sept. 11
Return of Dracula, The/The Vampire None
Both films are buoyed by fine portrayals by lead players Lederer and Beal respectively, but ultimately they're little more than minor entertainments due to workmanlike scripts at best. If the films are personal favorites, however, the 1.85 anamorphic transfers should please as are both are above average with sharp and quite clean images. The mono sound is in good shape in both instances.

Anne of the Thousand Days/Mary, Queen of Scots
(Genevieve Bujold/Glenda Jackson)
Universal - Sept. 18
Anne of the Thousand Days/Mary, Queen of Scots Isolated music score for Mary, Queen of Scots with commentary by film historians Nick Redman and Jon Burlingame.
Two excellent films about Tudor England are packaged in this two-disc release. Both play a little loose with the facts, Mary more than Anne, but that's easy to overlook with acting so good and subject matter so interesting. Each title sports a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that's quite presentable though subject to some noticeable edge effects. The DD 2.0 sound is essentially a mono experience in both cases, though somewhat more dynamic sounding on the Mary disc.

Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, The
(Cliff Robertson)
Universal - Sept. 25
Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, The Theatrical trailer.
A superior western that was a bit of a beacon during the genre's weakening 1970s decade, it relates the story of the ill-fated James and Younger brothers' raid on the title location. Gritty action artfully blended with some humour and a realistic look. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is top-notch - colourful and nicely detailed. The mono sound is clear.

Funny Face: 50th Anniversary Edition
(Audrey Hepburn)
Paramount - Oct. 2
Funny Face: 50th Anniversary Edition Featurette on the collaboration between Hepburn and fashion designer Givenchy; theatrical trailer
One of Paramount's pitifully few classic releases, this is a new release for the previously-available title. Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn don't work that well together, but the Gershwin music and the Astaire artistry make this musical a must anyway. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is very strong and represents a substantial improvement over the original release. It's cleaner, brighter, more colourful, and more detailed. The mono sound is fine. The DD 5.1 track also offered adds little.

Jazz Singer, The: 80th Anniversary Edition
(Al Jolson)
WB - Oct. 16
Jazz Singer, The: 80th Anniversary Edition Audio commentary with Ron Hutchinson (Vitaphone Project) and Vince Giordano; four vintage shorts with Al Jolson including A Plantation Act; 6-film Jolson trailer gallery including The Jazz Singer; classic cartoon I Love to Singa; feature length documentary The Dawn of Sound: How Movies Learned to Talk; studio shorts from or about the early sound era; over 4 hours of rare and historical Vitaphone shorts from 1926-1936 (25 titles in all) highlighting many gifted entertainers of the time; stills and other publicity reproductions.

This is the release to get if you get none other from the October and November offerings - an extremely classy 3-disc set that gives the first talking picture pride of place and just about as superb a presentation as one could ask for. The film itself tells the age-old story of youth seeking its own path as opposed to one following parental expectations - in this case Al Jolson as a popular jazz singer rather than as a synagogue cantor. The film, which has only a few modest actual sound sequences with much of it more in tune with silent film, utilized the Vitaphone synchronized sound approach rather than the sound on film approach that would later become standard. On DVD, it looks sharp and well-detailed with a grayscale surprising appealing for an 80-year old film. Only a few scratches and speckles intrude. The mono sound is also well preserved with only minor hiss at all evident.

Treasures from American Film Archives III: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934
(Various)
Image - Oct. 16
Treasures from American Film Archives III: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934 176-page book of credits and notes on each title in the set; audio commentaries by various film historians and professors on many titles.
For me, this is the best of the three Treasures sets released to date under the auspices of the National Film Preservation Foundation. Its unifying social issues theme makes for a more coherent set of presentations than the previous sets sported despite their admirable content. Grouped on four discs under the headings "The City reformed", "New Women", "Toil and Tyranny", "and "Americans in the Making" are 48 films including 4 feature length titles, all appealing and quite different from each other - William Desmond Taylor's The Soul of Youth (1920, delinquency), Lois Weber's Where Are My Children? (1916, anti-abortion), Cecil B. De Mille's The Godless Girl (1928, atheism) and Redskin (1929, with Richard Dix, native American issues). The other 44 short subjects comprise an astonishing range of subjects and viewpoints (World War I, Prohibition, Americanization, traffic safety, health, the suffragette and union movements, mafia, etc.) The films themselves look very good for the most part. All four features are very clear and detailed. The shorts are similarly appealing though some are softer and more subject to the vagaries of time. New music scores are presented with all the silent titles, to good effect. Fans can also look forward to the Treasures IV set in the fall of 2008 (The American Avant-Garde Film).

Burt Lancaster: The Signature Collection
(The Flame and the Arrow/His Majesty O'Keefe/Jim Thorpe All American/South Sea Woman/ Executive Action)

(Burt Lancaster)
WB - Oct. 23
Burt Lancaster: The Signature Collection A Joe McDoakes short, a cartoon, and one or more trailers with each feature; vintage featurette November 22, 1963: In Search of an Answer on the Executive Action disc.
This entry in Warner's Signature Collection line is a welcome treat for Lancaster fans, but even they will probably admit that it lacks many of the best Lancaster titles, most of which tend to date from the late 1950s onwards. Most of the films here are from Lancaster's early 1950s "athletic" period - entertaining time-passers, of which Jim Thorpe All American is the best. Executive Action is from 1973 and one of the first big-screen films questioning the events of Kennedy's assassination. I'm in the minority here, but I've always found it to be a compelling film with good work from both Lancaster and Robert Ryan (his last film). The films all look quite presentable with His Majesty O'Keefe, The Flame and the Arrow, and Executive Action (1.85 anamorphic) faring best. The mono sound does the job in each instance. All titles are also available separately.

Christmas Carol, A: Ultimate Collector's Edition
(Alastair Sim)
VCI - Oct. 23
Christmas Carol, A: Ultimate Collector's Edition Audio commentary by film historian Marcus Hearn and actor George Cole; the 1935 feature film Scrooge, starring Seymour Hicks (the 60-minute version, still looking rather dark and murky); featurettes on Alastair Sim, Charles Dickens, and Renown Pictures; British and American theatrical trailers.
VCI presents a new two-disc release of the Alastair Sim version of the classic Dickens Christmas tale. This time, VCI has had access to the original negative and the result is the best-looking version of the film currently available on DVD. Despite a few sequences that still look a little soft, there's much better image detail and improved contrast. The transfer looks quite clean now too. The film has been properly presented in its full frame original aspect ratio, but an anamorphic cropped version for presentation on high definition TVs has also been included. It doesn't offer the same degree of crispness evident on the full frame effort. An unnecessary colourized version takes up disc space on the set's second disc. The mono sound has also been spiffed up noticeably and an added surround sound track provides little improvement on it.


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